Soba restaurants are about as common as convenience stores or ramen shops in Japan. You can find one on almost every corner. There’s a lot of mediocre soba out there, less good, but great soba is rare. The difference is cold lifelessly bland noodles dipped in overly sweet MSG-enhanced “soup,” compared to hand kneaded noodles crafted from buckwheat flour ground from the innermost kernel, accompanied by an elegant multi-layered bowl of soy and bonito broth (tsuyu). The former is something you might eat to fill your stomach (I wouldn’t). The latter is something you might drive an hour to “experience” (I would).
Here in our little local area of Kodama-gun, we have a great soba restaurant that rivals any more expensive and exclusive Tokyo spots. And this restaurant has one more thing that is hard to find: a passionate chef who cares more about the food and his customers than he does about his own self-importance. Kanji Nakatani, gravel-voiced and Polo-clad, is an anomaly in this age. He puts together a room and his food with a fine-honed esthetic eye, but never loses sight of what it’s all about: the food and the customers. And that’s what keeps us going back again and again. That warm and giving spirit. And some of the best food I have ever eaten in Japan.
I’ve developed a fairly specialized palate, after living and cooking on an organic farm for the last 20 years in Japan. When I eat food I can taste the quality (or not) of the ingredients and I can taste the passion (or not) of the chef. At Soba Ra, I taste both.
On the edge of a cluster of love hotels sits the surprising Soba Ra, nestled up against the hillside and bordered by a bamboo forest. The construction is traditional Japanese, with Kilim rugs and antique English schoolroom chairs adding a distinct Western flair. Art Deco lamps hang over an open counter area where “Kanchan” (as he is affectionately called) wields his knife, cutting super fresh, thoughtfully selected sashimi. Kanchan creates custom sashimi plates balancing fish with tsuma. Tsuma (“wife”) is the traditional vegetable that accompanies sashimi (usually machine slivered daikon or limp shiso leaves). His daikon is handcut and the tsuma splashes the plate, not just as a nod to tradition, but as a way to celebrate the fish: boiled greens, wild watercress, green onion, myoga (relative of ginger) and daikon are just a few of the vegetables he might use.
Kanchan cooks from the bottom up, and puts great effort into making the dashi and various soy sauces that form the base of traditional Japanese cooking. He also cooks for the customer. How is the weather? What will people want to eat to warm them or cool them? This is how he approaches the meal: with empathy.
Squares of tamogodofu, a savory egg custard, are flecked with fresh picked crabmeat (never the fake), seasonal greens and enoki mushrooms. And after taking our last bite, we always pick up the small dishes to slurp up the broth that lingers. Kanchan uses eggs from Tadaaki’s farm, and of course this adds a certain something to our enjoyment of an already delectable dish. Tamagodofu is deceptive in its simplicity (as is much of Japanese cuisine), but our homemade attempts have never measured up to Kanchan’s superior rendition.
Soba is not the only reason to come to Ra. Kanchan is a maniac for fish and his whole cooked fishes are not to be missed. Some fish he deep-fries and then finishes with dashi flavored with soy sauce and ginger. Other fish is marinated in miso and broiled (saikyomiso). All are good. No, all are great.
Soba Ra serves a wide range of udon or soba choices from kamo jiru udon (hot duck and vegetable broth soup with wheat noodles) to tororono soba (grated taro root with raw egg and a cold soup for dipping nutty buckwheat noodles). A departure from his flagship restaurant, Soba Ro, at Ra you can also order donburi dishes such as oyakodon (chicken, onion and egg on rice) or tendon (rice with broth simmered shrimp tempura on top). But any choice will leave you satisfied, as I have never had a bite of food at Soba Ra (or Ro) that didn’t tantalize my grateful tongue.
At the end of the meal, stuffed (it’s hard to resist ordering too much as you want to try everything) and completely sated, dessert arrives. The desserts at Soba Ro have taken a long time to get right, but at Ra things seem to have clicked into place. The black sugar custards are sweet, but not too; the cakes are moist and tasty while the sorbets strike an elegant balance between sugar and fruit.
It’s not hard to find great looking food in Japan. This country lives for it. The eyeball effect is everything. But it’s not as easy to find food infused with passion or food made with artisanal or organic ingredients. And it’s really difficult to find food that has all three: passion, beauty and the best foodstuffs. Soba Ra and Soba Ro have those. And that’s rare.