“Where’s the noodle man?” I asked when we sat down. “Do you think he’s off tonight?”
The glass booth at the back of the restaurant where he normally makes soba noodles was empty.
“It wouldn’t be soba if he wasn’t working,” said my young son, who has a child’s keen sense of what is proper. “Soba is supposed to be fresh.”
He was right. (He has a Japanese school friend whose father owns a restaurant.) Honmura An’s specialty is soba noodles, made from buckwheat that is stone-ground daily on the premises, mixed with spring water and rolled out before your eyes.
Indeed, a few seconds later the chef, his head tied in a red bandanna, was at his post, brandishing a large wad of dough, which he slapped down on the wooden counter and began to pummel.
The dough became increasingly elastic as he tossed it in the air, stretched it, flattened it and rolled it out without once making a hole. All this was accompanied by the strains of “Ave Maria” playing solemnly over the sound system. (Never, as Noel Coward once said, underestimate the power of cheap music.)
“He’s about to cut the noodles!” My son stood up, like a spectator at a soccer match when someone scores a goal.
The dough was now touching the ends of the counter like a giant pancake, less than an eighth of an inch thick. The chef took up an enormous knife and with deft, unerring strokes sliced it into perfect, foot-long strands, which he hung up to dry.
This mesmerizing theater is only part of the fun at Honmura An, the SoHo branch of the famous 75-year-old noodle house in Tokyo. The other part is watching people eat the noodles, which are very slippery and hard to handle for those not expert with chopsticks. Children are bemused by a note on the side of the menu saying that it’s O.K. to slurp–and not only is slurping perfectly good manners, it’s a sign of appreciation. (In the comic Japanese film Tampopo , a group of young Japanese women about to embark on a trip to Italy are taught the acceptable way to eat spaghetti. They must not slurp, raise the plate to their chin or noisily gulp down the sauce. But the lesson fails. The pasta they are served is too good.)
Honmura An, which caters to a large number of Japanese who presumably hanker for soba the way Americans abroad crave a hamburger, is up a flight of wooden stairs on the second floor of a loft building across from the Mercer Street Parking Garage. The airy, open space has high ceilings, brick walls hung with giant scrolls of white paper and comfortable green banquettes. Every detail of the dining room is Zen-like in its simplicity, down to the perfect Japanese flower arrangements. Polished wood tables are set with dark porcelain jugs of soy sauce and bowls of mixed ground chilies and black pepper. A small, shiny black pebble is provided as a resting place for your chopsticks, and hot towels come with a little bamboo cradle in which you are expected to deposit them after use (and not on your plate or the table).
To go with the food at Honmura An, I like Japanese beer or one of the cool sakes served in wooden boxes. We ordered a bowl of edamame (green soybeans in their pods that are as addictive as popcorn) and munched on them while we looked at the menu.
Sushi dishes change according to the market and they are unfailingly fresh–excellent yellowtail with shiso leaves, perfect tuna and plump, delicious uni (sea urchin roe). I liked the sushi better than the salmon oroshi, a dish we picked from the menu, which consisted of slices of smoked salmon and salmon eggs served with rather watery grated daikon, not a stellar combination. But the pickled vegetables and seaweed salad were very good, as was the asparagus topped with a creamy sesame dressing, and the Japanese eggplant, which came cut in thick, soft marinated chunks.
Children love the tori dango, crisp deep-fried ground chicken meatballs, flavored with Japanese herbs and served with a mustard dipping sauce. They love them so much, in fact, we ended up having two rounds. Tempura was also excellent–asparagus, sweet potatoes, mushrooms and prawns in a feathery, delicate batter. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes is giant prawns flown in from the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. They cost $21.75 for two, but they were sweet and juicy, with as much meat on them as a small lobster.
Then came the noodles, two kinds: udon, made of white flour and cut thick, and soba, thin and grayish in color. They are cooked in a rich broth flavored with duck, bonito or seaweed and are served hot or cold, with bowls of dipping sauce, grated daikon, wasabi, scallions and bonito flakes. The cold noodles come on wooden racks placed inside large lacquer trays to allow them to drain, the hot ones in a clay pot. Cold udon with sesame dipping sauce we found rather bland; they didn’t generate as much slurping as the hot ones, topped with prawn tempura and vegetables, which we liked much better. We also slurped our way through kamonan, hot soba noodles topped with sliced duck, and nameko, soba with tiny doll-sized mushrooms, daikon, bonito, shredded nori and scallions.
When we had finished, our waitress brought over a red lacquer box with a spout and put it down on the table. “It’s the water the noodles were boiled in,” she explained. “Very good for you.”
Some people pour it into the dipping sauce, others drink it plain. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste (which I can skip). For dessert, there was a creamy green-tea ice cream and vanilla ice cream with sweet red-bean topping.
When our waitress brought the bill, my son looked wistful. “Could you bring the whole dinner again?”
170 Mercer Street, near Houston Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Interesting sakes
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $9 to $21.75
Lunch: Wednesday to Friday noon to 2:30 P.M.
Dinner: Tuesday to Thursday 6 to 10 P.M., Friday and Saturday to 10:30 P.M., Sunday to 9 P.M.
* * Very good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No star: Poor