There is a particular kind of yam that drools as you chew it. You can find slices of the sticky Nagaimo tucked in shiso leaves at Cocoron, a place to appreciate some of the most delightful textures of the Japanese kitchen: the slippery gob of salted tuna liver. The funky squidge of natto. And, of course, what you came here for—the soba shop’s chewy buckwheat noodles, rolled and cut every day.
Husband-and-wife duo Yoshihito Kida and Mika Ohie spent years cooking soba in Japan and the U.S. Following the success of their tiny noodle bar on Delancey Street, they’ve opened a second in Nolita. Soba is a slow-moving trend that got its first big break in the late 17th century, when the stalls that specialized in buckwheat noodles began to dominate the coastal stations of Japan’s Tokaido Road. Before that, all-wheat udon ruled.
Soba is difficult. Buckwheat brings complex, earthy flavor but provides little gluten to hold together a dough, so it has to be supplemented by less-flavorful wheat flour. The trick is to get the purest buckwheat taste possible without compromising the structure of the noodle. Cooks might find elasticity with secretive uses of hot water, beaten eggs, powdered burdock leaves, or soybean mash. But noodle makers, including Cocoron’s, don’t like to discuss particulars.
The noodles here have soul and bite. A massive pot of water rolls in the back of the kitchen, sending up a clean, perfumed steam. One cook shocks the noodles in ice water, another continually tastes and seasons small batches of broth. Kida might quietly assemble orders during service, taking a four-minute break to sit beside you at the bar and slurp his hot soba at the speed it should be eaten, before the noodles absorb too much broth and start to limp out.
For those who can’t eat quickly, better to go with a cold dish. Zaru soba ($8) is the most reasonably priced and the simplest: al dente noodles with a side of bonito-kelp broth for dipping, which you can season with scallions and wasabi. (Cocoron’s soft-boiled eggs are gelatinous orbs that can barely keep it together, and a wonderful addition to any order.) Salty vegetarian versions, rich with seaweed and mushroom, won’t taste like a compromise.
Cocoron’s flashy dip-style sobas are also ideal for those who like to take their time, broth kept bubbling by a burning Sterno and a side of cold, firm noodles to dip as you go along (but make those dips quick, or the noodles go squishy). Japanese-style curry ($13.50) has an easygoing, TV dinner appeal. Pork kimchi ($11.80) could be confused for a ramen, but its broth and meat are far too lean. No matter which soba you choose, a small jug of hot sobayu—the sweet cooking water you’ve been smelling all night—will arrive when you finish. Pour it into whatever remains of your dipping sauce and take a few sips for soba’s greatest trick: a tripling of flavor, an electric wash of salt on the tongue.
Evangelical cartoon characters spread the healthy gospel of soba all over the menu, like a doomed daikon radish who carries his own grater and a happy heart with noodles sprouting from her head.It’s hard to take these little guys seriously when they go on about protein and vitamin B and why sobayu is good for your body in the menu’s liner notes. It’s also hard to deny that Cocoron leaves your senses sharp and your limbs agile (unlike ramen, which calls for a nice long nap and putting off writing the rent check for one more day).
Yes, you’ll have room for dessert after dinner, and a creamy scoop of fresh tofu is a good one to choose. But I can’t say enough about the green tea affogato: a sundae of cornflakes, red bean paste, and small rice dumplings, poured over with green tea soy milk at the table. It’s delicately sweet and cool with rewardingly chompy bits.
But texture is a fleeting pleasure, and every cornflake yields to the milk. Before you know it, the whole thing turns to mush. So eat fast and hard like you mean it.