Leave it to the sophisticated aesthetics of Japanese cuisine to take lowly buckwheat --which ranks up there with wheat germ and prunes in most pleasure-seeking American diets -- and transform it into the elegant, lithe, sandy-colored soba noodle. Square-cut, sweetly nutty and rigid when cooked properly, the soba noodle is a hardier food than sushi bar hounds might have come to expect from the culture that can make fish float down your throat. But the Japanese are known masters at cooking around ingredients, at creating temple-like dishes that honor one or two flavors only; just as sashimi is all about the fish, a typical soba noodle bowl is light, clean and all about the noodle.
When you order Soba Noodle at Yutaro, the noodle and teriyaki restaurant that opened three months ago in Kenner not far from the I-10 exit, you get a deep, rough-glazed bowl of buckwheat noodles slipped into a thin, brownish broth that tastes of soy sauce and ocean. In Japanese cooking, visual beauty is a principal ingredient; the most unpretentious foods become masterpieces: prawns are twisted into flowers, cucumbers are carved into pine trees. Form is taken so gravely it actually seems possible that a sloppy plate of food wouldn't taste right. Yutaro's pretty soba noodle bowl is decorated with greens and browns, earth and sea: a floating sheet of toasted seaweed, two sponge-like squares of fried tofu, a bundle of wilted spinach, mung bean sprouts and half of a hard-cooked egg. A few dribbles of hot chile-sesame oil adds a final, diaphanous layer of flavor to a dish that's much too wholesome to taste so wonderful.
Yutaro's dining room is a tidy, no-frills space with red paper lanterns and a few shelves of Japanese comic books. The current menu is a series of 13 pastel-colored papers taped to one wall, each advertising a single dish in graceful black-ink script. One afternoon in July the man in charge told me that House Ramen contained ramen noodles with pork, which was such an understatement that it verged on a lie. The broth was a murky, yellowish-clay color with a complexity of flavors that included chicken, garlic, vegetables and ocean. The curly egg noodles were completely hidden in their robins-egg-blue bowl by ingredients arranged in a neat color wheel: pickled cabbage, eye-searing green spinach, slivers of preserved bamboo, mung bean sprouts, sliced pork, a sheet of seaweed and shreds of hot-pink pickled ginger.
Cold Noodle is a similar, meticulously crafted palette that looks something like Cher's eye-shadow kit. Imitation crab, cucumber, dried seaweed, lettuce, pickled ginger, sweet omelette and pork are all shredded and organized on top of cold ramen egg noodles -- which truly taste like cooked egg -- with gelatinous seaweed-sesame salad, red and yellow tomatoes and marinated shiitake mushrooms. Tossing everything together in the vinegary dressing offers the same naughty thrill you get from kicking in a sand castle, though eating the cool salad is a more sublime experience.
Ginger Pork, the only teriyaki dish I tried, is a great meal of tender, sliced pork coated in a honey-like ginger-soy sauce and set over sticky rice with cucumber.
A wall of windows separates Yutaro from Asian Gourmet, a bright, mostly Japanese supermarket that's undergoing a major upgrade. In a back area formerly used for storage, you can now buy sashimi tuna, yellowtail and salmon, smelt the size of anchovies and an array of whole fish packed to their eyeballs in crushed ice. There's an entire aisle devoted to noodles, and another one to tea, seaweed and dried bonito fish flakes, a main ingredient in noodle bowl stock. I took a cooler with me last time to stock up on ice cream mochi, an amazing frozen finger-food made by wrapping stretchy rice cake dough around balls of green tea, red bean, mango and coffee ice creams.
Once you've seen the film Tampopo, a hilarious Japanese spaghetti Western in which a single mom evolves from mediocre cook to noodle maven, you'll be tickled to see that Yutaro's cook is a young woman who hustles around brewing green tea and presenting her steaming creations with a quiet nod. A split curtain obscures the entrance to her kitchen, but you can catch glimpses of Kayo Sawada as she dips a giant ladle into a stockpot or lifts a wire mesh sieve full of noodles from a massive cast-iron wok. While businessmen drinking Kirin beer tend to linger during lunch, the cook's friends -- young Asians with drastic highlights and cans of pearl milk tea from the market -- arrive in the early evening. They slurp noodles -- loudly -- and share plump, handmade gyoza dumplings stuffed with juicy pork, green onions and ginger. You can make your own dumpling dipping sauce by mixing soy sauce, chile-sesame oil and rice vinegar.
As I see it, only freshly made noodles could improve Yutaro, the city's sole restaurant specializing in noodle bowls. Then again, if you've ever seen Tampopo, you know that Sawada would have to go to noodle boot camp to learn that skill. And she certainly can't leave us now, not in October, not as we approach high noodle season ... .
- Cheryl Gerber
- YUTARO chef Kayo Sawada can be seen hustling about the restaurant, brewing green tea and serving up her steaming creations with a quiet nod.