Slightly chilled buckwheat soba noodles are one of those perfect foods that simply don't need any elaboration, save for a little shaving of seaweed confetti as a crowing garnish if you desire. Alone, they're like Japanese cuisine's version to California's figs on a plate. But it has a different, daring dynamic when paired with a sauce or vegetable. They might no longer be "pure" when coated with mountain yam, but just as enjoyable.
The best way to experience this nudge of elaboration to cold soba and udon would be the sampler "sanshoku" at the venerable Mifune in Japantown's Kintetsu Building (note that the menu only says the sampler is soba but really it's two soba and one udon). As it's in the middle of one of the major Japantown complexes, I was skeptical at first that the restaurant might be another place going through the usual noodle, tempura and sushi paces. But Mifune is definitely not run of the mill.
First, it's exceedingly rare for a restaurant to actually make its own soba and udon noodles. Mifune does. You taste the effort. The restaurant itself opened back in 1978 and the recipe for the noodles is almost a century old. The noodles taste a little clearer and feel a little softer and more elastic than their peers. In particular, the soba achieves that excellent nutty profile that makes soba so wonderful on its own. It's the rare noodle that goes beyond a texture personality and actually conveys a flavor personality.
In the trio, soba comes covered in grated mountain yam that is actually more like an El Bulli foam than anything resembling what comes at Thanksgiving with marshmallows. Mameko mushrooms in a strong, thin sour broth cover the other bowl of soba. The mamekos must be the tiniest mushrooms that exist in the fungi world but still pack a good earthy punch for their petite size. A third bowl has the thicker wheat-based udon covered with Japanese "mountain vegetables," aka julienned bamboo shoots, wilted greens, carrots, and what seemed like pickled eggplant.
The udon surprisingly was the winner of the trio, both for its fresh vegetables and lack of sauce. This meant that the udon could be dipped into the sweet soy dipping sauce that was meant for all three dishes, which was almost good enough to drink on its own.
But beware if you don't have a Ph.D in tricky chopsticks methodology and get embarrassed easily from messy eating in public. Soba without sauce is easy to pick up and slurp. Soba covered in slimy, sticky sauces like the mountain yam and mameko mushrooms are as slick as black ice.
You have to do what you have to do, even if it means looking foolish, because this Japanese cold noodle feast certainly hits the spot for lunch any time of year. Now that summer is days away, cold noodles should become a habit.
1737 Post, 922-0337.