Slurped: Seeking Out Soba in Midtown

Soba at Soba Nippon. [Photographs: Dave Katz, unless otherwise noted]

The last leg of my soba inquiry had me trudging through the thickets of midtown, which may account for why I was feeling so inordinately cranky and flustered last week. But it was not all for naught.

I am happy to report back with two options for soba in midtown: Sakagura on the east side and Soba Nippon on the west. These are two very different, and I am going to try to present both options with as much objective detachment as I can muster.

Now if, on the one hand, you are a stickler for purity, formality and cleanliness, you might like Soba Nippon. The place looks classy in a 1960's sort of way: the crowd during lunch is all business suits and briefcases. And for crying out loud, they grow their own buckwheat on a farm in Canada, so you would hope that the noodles would be something special.

The noodles were special: springy and full of buckwheat flavor, neither under- nor overcooked, with a dipping sauce that tasted of very fine dashi. But like last week's noodles, they were expensive—my order of soba with grated daikon set me back twenty dollars, and the accompaniments were 1) a lackluster lettuce salad and 2) pouches of fried tofu stuffed with rice.

Salad and fried tofu at Soba Nippon.

Okay, I lied. I am going to tell you exactly what I think. These were very nice noodles, and a very fine fit for business lunches, but they weren't for me. Not only because of the hefty price tag and the less than stellar sides, but also because I am the kind of eater who likes hunkering down over a bowl of hearty fare, and hunkering is just not the sort of action you engage in at Soba Nippon.

For that, I had to venture to the other side of the tracks. Sakagura is a bar in a basement a few blocks east of Grand Central Station. It is a sake bar of good repute which just happens to make its own soba. I had never been there before, and the place was hardly recognizable from the street but for a sign at the entrance to the building.

I walked down a dingy corridor and a dirty flight of stairs. Actually it was not a long way to walk, but going below ground, descending into the underbelly of a building, always makes me feel as though I'm trespassing or doing something illicit. What can I say? I am a pretty mousy person, so finding the path to Sakagura was definitely the most thrilling thing that happened to me that day.

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The bar at Sakagura. Note the hunkering. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

When I visited, the restaurant was dimly lit, humming with chatter. Bottles of sake lined the brick walls, and jazz music made the place feel warm and dream-like. I had the sense of having stumbled upon a modern-day speakeasy, or maybe a boisterous tavern like the kind you seen in anime films.

During lunchtime, Sakagura offers a lunch special that is pretty great. For $11.50, you get a plate of soba and an entirely separate bowl of rice topped with an entrée that varies each day. Salmon tartare, fried and marinated mackerel, sashimi, stewed pork are some of their offerings. I was a little doubtful that my salmon tartare would be fresh, but it was, and not a throwaway item at all. It was just an entirely different meal, which came with my soba, all for $11.50. (Show up early, if you can. They limit themselves to 30 servings per day during lunchtime, 50 servings on Thursdays.)

Actually the lunch special is really too much for one person. My advice would be to go there with a friend, and order one small thing in addition to the lunch special. (All the better if one of you happens to be a rice person, and the other a noodle person.)

As for the noodles themselves? Texturally, they were beautiful: chewy and al-dente, with a pleasing slickness that had me slurping with complete abandon. I would have liked the buckwheat flavor to be more at the forefront, but I feel that a noodle that's a smidgeon too bland is still a nice noodle, while a noodle that is too gummy, or chalky, or floppy is not worth slurping at all. And isn't slurping the whole point, the main reason why we eat noodles?

Soba Nippon

19 West 52nd Street New York, NY 10103 (map)
212-489-2525
sobanippon.com

Sakagura

211 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017 (map)
212-953-7253
sakagura.com

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