It's hard to argue with soba's versatility. In summer, you can eat these buckwheat-accented Japanese noodles cold alongside a tangy, concentrated soy dipping sauce called tsuyu. During chillier climes, soba performs just as well starring in hot dishes, where you might see a nest of delicate strands swimming in a bowl of earthy broth. The latter was precisely what I was after when the blustering wind chased me into Soba Totto the other afternoon. Located a short walk from Grand Central, the Midtown spot specializes in soba, and at lunch it serves a variety of set meals that come with a bowlful of broth-soaked noodles.
Care was clearly taken in designing Soba Totto's interior, which is well lit and outfitted in dark woods. If you ever need a clean break from a fluorescent office environment, here's your serenity. The largely Japanese staff is quick and conscientious. Scanning the menu, I was drawn to the Maguro Tatsuta Don ($17), a frequent special addition to the set-meal offerings, which pairs slices of teriyaki-lacquered tuna over rice with hot soba noodles in broth. Most of the lunch sets at Soba Totto are priced in the teens—treat-yo-self territory, to be sure—but the portions proved to be generously sized for the cost.
As a prelude to the soba, I enjoyed the Kinoko and Horenso Namuru ($6) appetizer, wilted spinach and sliced eringi mushrooms in a sesame oil marinade. I was pleasantly surprised that it was rather boldly seasoned for Japanese fare, with hints of spice and good salt content. Nice cellulose bite to the spinach, too.
A small salad is included with the set meal, providing a welcome hit of greens before the starches show up. While it may be small, this salad isn't treated like an afterthought; it popped with bright dressing and sharp, bitter greens.
Attack your soba noodles first once your lunch arrives. They land in front of you perfectly cooked, but won't stay that way forever, as the hot broth they come in will overcook them into mushiness. But those first few slurps are indeed superb; Soba Totto's broth is delicately savory, infused with earthy, mushroomy flavor.
The soba noodles are delightful. Their light, nutty taste is complemented by a forgiving but satisfying bite. Texturally, they bear a perceptible "tooth," a roughness that adheres the broth to the noodle and prevents clumping.
While I also enjoyed the tuna over rice, I found the teriyaki sauce overpowered the fish's subtlety. Thankfully a plate of sides accompanied the meal, including beautifully pickled ginger, scallion, daikon, and freshly grated, nose-clearing wasabi. Mixing these into each bite added jolts of brightness that countered the sauce's richness.
The tuna itself, while flaky and tender, was slightly overcooked. I suspect that dryness played a part in its lack of flavor compared to the teriyaki sauce.
After so much savory, why not a little sweet? The Pumpkin Pudding ($6) is a strong dessert option, and very shareable at its size. The custardy pudding has deep pumpkin flavor without being overly sweet. The vanilla ice cream, on the other hand, suffered from a lack of sweetness. Ice cream this bland isn't worth the calories.
For your money, it would seem that the best way to navigate Soba Totto at lunch is to head straight for its specialty, its exceptional soba noodles.