High-end soba-restaurants seem to be a new fad, as soba* used to be an essentially cheap dish. Indeed, if you walk into Sasuga Bekkan in Ginza, you can still order a zarusoba (plain buckwheat noodles in a bamboo basket) for 1.000 yen and occupy a table for as long as you wish. But this somehow just does not happen in Tokyo - and indeed, once seated, it would be a sad waste not to try a few other dishes as well.
We are sitting at the counter, which is always a good vantage point to watch preparations from and to discuss food and drink options with the chef. (Actually, having been warned in advance, we have ordered something called sobazushi when we made the reservation.) We choose the sake first: Tenyurin junmai ginjo-shu** from Mie, from the vicinity of the sacred shrine at Ise. It comes in a beautiful container, that were made to order by a Japanese craftsman, who also created on beautiful ceramic plates.
Our waitress recommends a few starters before the main attractions - I almost wrote main course, but that concept does not really exist in this kind of cuisine - and we choose slices of roast duck and sobagaki (steamed buckwheat dumpling). The dumpling is soft with a grainy texture and does not have much of a taste in itself, but it is flavoured with an interesting combination of wasabi and a salty-sweet sauce.
We do not quite know what to expect from the sobazushi, but it was recommended as a house speciality. It looks like a plate of makizushi (sushi roll), only with soba noodles instead of rice. Interesting we think but we will stick with the standard version...
We are planning to eat a simple zarusoba at the end, which is always served cold, so first we need some warming food - delicious, crunchy steamed vegetables and the Sasuga nabe yudofu (tofu boiled in hot water at the table). A gas cooker is placed in front of us, than a small ceramic pot with water that is slightly murky and turns out to be the cooking water of soba noodles. Slabs of tofu are immersed in the boiling water for a few minutes, followed by mushroom, leek, leafy greens and atsuage (fried tofu). By the time the vegetables are done, the water is transformed into a lovely soup.
To complete the soba-theme tonight, we try some cooked buckwheat grains (which is seldom served in this form in Japan) and finally, the zarusoba. It is Juwari, says the waitress and a quick look at my iPhone translates the word as 100% buckwheat noodle. A farewell glass of Shinshu (young sake) from Hyogo sends us on our way happy.
Sasuga Bekkan is part of a trio of high-end soba-kaiseki restaurants, all located around Ginza. Bekkan is on the second floor of a rather ugly house near Showa dori, but do not let the unpromising look of the building fool you - the entryway opens into an exquisite Japanese interior.
Food: 7/10 (very good)
Ambiance: 8/10 (beautiful tableware)
Price-performance: 6/10 (reasonable)
Address: Toni Bld. 2F 2-13-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Tel: +81 (3) 3543-0404
* soba is essentially buckwheat, a type of cereal widespread in Europe, as well, in the 18th-19th century. More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buckwheat
** junmai means that it is pure rice wine, without any added alcohol; in ginjo sake the rice has had at least the outer 40% of the grains polished away, resulting in a delicate, fragrant, complex taste.