Cocoron--On the LES in Noodle York City
Watch out, ramen—your days of soupy supremacy in this city are numbered. Cocoron, an excellent new restaurant whose name means "heartwarming" in Japanese, is poised to change the city's noodlescape, bringing soba into the culinary limelight. See ya, places with three-hour waits and ceaseless hype (Ippudo, cough, cough).
Sure, New York already hosts a few worthy spots selling the strands—like Soba-ya, Sobakoh, and Soba Totto—but soba has never been celebrated like its cup-o-noodles cousin. Maybe because buckwheat evokes bland, hippie-commune cuisine (now there's an oxymoron!).
Japan transplants Mika Ohie and Yoshihito Kida will hopefully change that. They've brought a little piece of Tokyo to a particularly dismal stretch of Delancey Street. And the key word is little—the zenlike space holds only three tables that each seat two, while a bar overlooking the kitchen accommodates eight. But what it lacks in size, the place makes up for in flavor.
Zaru tofu ($5)—served alongside garnishes of bonito flakes, scallions, nori strips, and grated ginger—is an auspicious starting point. Scoop a dollop of the voluptuous block of house-made tofu into your saucer, drizzle in soy sauce, season to taste, and you've got the ultimate umami pudding. Miso coleslaw ($2.50) is what Thumbelina might eat on a diet, but the tiny portion of red cabbage is vibrant and crunchy, topped with sesame seeds. Slightly larger is the daikon salad ($3.50), which combines the julienned vegetable with nori, bonito, and fried garlic, all in a zippy vinegar and soy-based dressing. Ignore the temptation to order the daikon mochi ($5), a far cry from the chewy rice balls you might have had in mind. Instead, the starchy mass is the long-lost twin of the dried-shrimp-and-sausage–studded turnip cake found at Chinese dim sum halls.
But, really, you've come for the soba. The menu is sprinkled with health-oriented suggestions—for example, those with a face full of wrinkles should down the hot tororo wakame soba ($8.50), which promises "natural anti-aging nutrients," while "the stickiness of the tororo is able to replenish the body." Are these claims for real? Who knows? Japanese life expectancy proves they're doing something right, though. If that means noshing on bowls of sticky grated mountain yam and verdant seaweed, you might as well get eating.
The cure for the hangover-prone (and who isn't on the Lower East Side?) is the cold natto soba ($8.50), since "the stickiness of the natto has an effect that aids to purify the bloodstream." The fermented soybeans are an acquired taste given their funky flavor and aroma; they're not nearly as bad as stinky tofu, which literally recalls edible death, but they're on the dirty-diaper level of fetidness. Yet when sauced and mixed with cold soba, cubed cucumber, daikon, pickled radish, a mostly raw egg, and freshly ground sesame seeds, the end result dazzles with complexity. Each mouthful is a bounty of contrasting flavors and textures, although the slime-averse should probably stick with the cool oroshi soba ($8), with its lovely, peppery finish, thanks to a crowning of freshly grated radish.
The yuba soba ($13) promises to be "a hit with ladies everywhere," and the delicious dish—my favorite on the menu—definitely wooed me. Yuba, or tofu skin, is made by skimming off the film that rises in a vat of curdling soymilk. Here it accompanies a portion of cold noodles, while a thick, savory broth warms over a tabletop flame. This tsukemen preparation is Japan's answer to fondue (along with sukiyaki, of course), ideal because the noodles end up hot and well-sauced, yet remain delectably al dente. Meat eaters can rev-up with the stamina dip soba ($8.80).
Cocoron isn't perfect. Dining (or at least carrying on a decent conversation) in groups larger than two proves a challenge. The place lacks a liquor license and won't allow BYOB, and credit cards aren't accepted. Moreover, the owners play the same ambient muzak CD on repeat, which gets tiresome after the first loop (and almost unbearable after the fourth visit). But in the grand scheme of eating, these faults are insignificant. Kinda like ramen.
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