61 Delancey Street, New York, NY 10002 (between Eldridge and Allen; map); cocoron-soba.com
Service: Friendly, prompt
Setting: Tiny, homey, Japanese
Must-Haves: Fresh tofu, yuba soba, any other soba
Cost: $3 to $8 for appetizers, $8 to $13 for soba
Since the great ramen boom of the early aughts, there's been no shortage of awesome Japanese noodle houses in Manhattan. Heck, we even went and found the best for ya last year. And with the awesome Samurai Mama in Williamsburg (see ourreview here), we've now got a place where we can dine on their thicker, sturdier cousin—freshly made in-house, no less.
But in the great quadrumverate of Japanese noodles—that would be ramen, udon, soba, and somen—we're still sorely lacking in the latter two. At least, we were lacking in the latter two. Cocoron, a new-ish soba joint in the Lower East Side has brought it, and man, is it good.
While ramen and udon are made from chewy, easy-to-work-with wheat flour, soba are made from a combination of buckwheat and regular wheat. Buckwheat is not nearly as stretchable or workable as regular wheat flour, making soba production much more difficult. Most mass-produced soba is grainy or mealy when cooked.
The soba at Cocoron, on the other hand, is everything it should be: bouncy and stretchy, with the distinct deep, slightly roasty flavor of buckwheat. The owner of the shop, Kida Yoshihito—a 10-year veteran of the Tokyo soba scene—likes to impress the health benefits of soba and broth on his customers. "A soba a day, and 'health' make way," proclaims the menu, which is illustrated with manga-style characters made of soba ingredients. I'm no nutritionist so can't comment on the truth of his statements, but I can tell you that it's the flavor that'll keep me going back again and again.
Eating soba is not like eating a big bowl of ramen. Most versions on the menu involve some sort of dipping, saucing, or stirring. Confused? Don't worry—the waitress is super friendly and your meal comes with more instructions than your average stereo from the '80's, all written in frankly hilarious Japanglish sprinkled with manga cartoons. More than once I found myself giggling during the meal.
Appetizers are small and tasty, including one of the best dishes of Home Made Silky Tofu ($5) I've had. A creamy block served on top of a bamboo leaf with grated ginger, scallions, nori, and bonito flakes is custard-smooth and exceptionally tasty with a bit of soy sauce.
They use the spent bits of soybean from its production to make crisp-creamy Pork and Okara Croquettes ($3.50), which are greaselessly fried and served with a Japanese-style barbecue dipping sauce.
There are at least two dozen soba dishes on the menu, running the gamut from Chicken Burdock Dip ($13) to Tororo Wakame ($8.50). Of the ones we tried, our favorite was the Stamina Soba ($.8.80).
A bowl of hot, salty pork broth arrives at your table with bits of ground pork, a meatball, slices of pork loin and mushrooms, all set on top of a small alcohol burner. Separately, you get a large bamboo plate of cold, slightly-undercooked soba. The idea is to dip the cold noodles in the hot broth to finish the cooking process. Our friendly waitress warns us not to dip our noodles for more than five to ten seconds, lest we cool the broth or soften the noodles too far.
Pork Shabu Soba ($10.50) comes with a different set of instructions. Rather than dipping hot broth, here, cold broth is poured over the top of the bowl, which comes filled with soba, thin slices of pork, and a whole lot of grated daikon radish and thin-sliced scallions and shiso (Japanese basil). We opted to upgrade to the sesame broth for an extra buck, but we actually preferred their standard tsuyu-style broth.
We sat contentedly slurping away at our bowls (slurping is the only way to enjoy soba), contemplating their remarkable texture in a zen-like way when the waitress arrived with our other two orders.
Natto Soba ($8.50) can be a bit much for the uninitiated (our waitress made double sure that we knew what we were getting into before ordering it). Salty, stinky fermented soy beans are an acquired taste, but a bowl of great noodles with fresh crunchies like cucumber and pickled daikon are an easy way to acquire it. It comes with a soft poached egg and a pitcher of broth so you can season as desired before stirring it all together into one tasty salad.
An added interactive bonus: A miniature mortar and pestle, filled with toasted sesame seeds for you to grind and sprinkle to taste. This kind of eating is a lot of fun.
Our last bowl was the simplest, but might have been my favorite. Yuba Soba ($13) comes simply with a plate of soba, a hot bowl of broth made with dashi and soy milk, and a small dish of rolled yuba—a house-made soy bean product made by skimming off the skin that forms on top of a big pot of simmering soy milk. Fresh, creamy, and almost milky in the way of the best ricotta or mozzarella, it's a really refreshing and satisfying tray of food.
Once you're done with the noodles and are ready for the check you're met with one last (interactive) surprise: the waitress brings over a pot of hot water so that you can dilute your broth and drink it, in her words, as "a delicious soup drink."
It might have just been that I was blown away by the deliciousness of the meal, or perhaps bowled over by the cartoon-characters proselytizing the health benefits of soba, but I swear, I did feel a bit stronger walking out the door.
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