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A few weeks ago, Laura Shunk paid a visit to soba master Shuichi Kotani to learn the secrets of the then-forthcoming soba at Daruma-Ya (428 Greenwich Street, 212-274-0428), which opened earlier this month in the former Greenwich Grill space above Sushi Azabu.
The space is largely a holdover from Greenwich Grill. Plan-Do-See group, who runs both restaurants at 428 Greenwich, barely touched bar nor dining room but for a quick once-over with a paintbrush. But the restaurant has been transformed into a traditional Japanese izakaya — where guests enjoy small snacks and drinks — and soba house, which serves what’s arguably the best buckwheat noodle in a town overrun with ramen.
Chef Nobuhito Dosei, who spent time at Michelin-starred Mori Sushi in L.A., heads up the izakaya kitchen, while soba master Shuichi Kotani gives his undivided attention to the noodles.
The tasting menu is a small splurge at $115, but it’s worth every penny. It brings seven courses, beginning with a trio of small dishes, and runs through several more before landing at the main event: long bamboo trays of excellent buckwheat noodles.
The tasting begins with three small snacks; on the night we went, these included takenoko (pictured above): Dashi-simmered bamboo shoots, ripe with a twinge of vinegar, and topped with chopped togarashi, a Japanese red pepper.
The first course also included a slimy bowl of mozuku seaweed, steeped in tosazu vinegar with ginger and sesame seeds, which tasted of naught but the sea, and toasty shreds of hijiki seaweed, again seasoned with dashi; this dish was a tad sweet, more nutty than briny. It’s pictured below.
Then came a bowl bearing a heap of loose, housemade tofu curd topped with firm, poppy-colored ikura and mild, pale yellow uni so fresh it lacked scent and fishy flavor completely.
This was followed by a single bite of creamy, musky, buttery foie gras sushi. Dosei sears tiny pats of Hudson Valley foie just enough to ripen their flavor, then places them atop sticky rice for a delightful treat.
After this, washugyu tataki. The beef is almost indiscernably seared, beautifully marbled, and iron-rich.
In a lobster uni yaki, Dose sautes hunks of sweet lobster meat in uni-studded mayonnaise, which, rather than fishy, reads nutty. Warm and creamy, and topped again with that mild, mustard-yellow uni, it’s a dramatic dish, but its flavor is warm and subtle, homey even.
Finally, we get to the soba, served cold with teapots of cool broth grounded in sweet soy sauce and sake. Pour this in a cup and dunking the noodles, one mouthful at a time, until they’re gone.
Kotani’s thin buckwheat soba could compete slurp-to-slurp with any ramen bowl in town. The noodles reflect years (10 in Japan, followed by more here) of careful attention to craft. Their miracle is in the texture: cooked to an elegant al dente, they’re firm but not chewy, almost brittle; they break cleanly between your teeth and are not sticky in the slightest.
And just when you’ve finished your noodles and think it’s all over, your waiter will bring conserved soba cooking water, which you’ll combine with the leftover broth for a nutrient-rich tea, a lovely lukewarm sip to finish the meal, followed by two petite scoops of ice cream (green tea and vanilla bean).
Next time, we’ll go a la carte and add some sashimi to the mix, and try a few more of the small dishes — which include Japanese octopus, fried scallops, and chicken — and other choices from land and sea. We’ll also explore the hot soba options, which you can get with yam, duck, or mushroom.