229 E. 9th Street (one block north of St. Mark’s Place)
New York, NY 10003
For a while now I’d been craving some good ol’ Japanese noodles. Specifically ramen, but when the opportunity came to sample what has been, on occasion, been referred to as NYC’s best soba, I didn’t pass it up (my dining companion this evening is allergic to most fish, and does not like ramen, so my suggestions of Menkui-tei Village or Menchanko-tei fell on deaf ears; both places I’d yet to review, I was thinking about you, the reader!).
I’d been to Soba-ya at least twice, to my knowledge; back when it was way too expensive for me to comfortably afford, and once when my b. met one of my close girlfriends for the first time (thereby making it over two years ago). Amusingly, I don’t recall what I had the first time, though I guarantee you it was not soba, and the last time, I had unagi, which was good, but not what Soba-ya is known for!
The first thing that strikes a person who is walking by is the outside being decorated to look like a restaurant set in… Japan?! The picture above was taken by me, on Friday night, while waiting for my friend. Yes, that is in the Village!!! Of course once you see it, you have to peruse the menu (the right hand portion of the picture, it looks like a hostess stand but lit up) which is conveniently posted right there for you to drool over.
Please note that when I got there, at about 7:30, they told me that the wait for 2 people was 30-40 minutes. While I stood outside, at least 20-30 people walked by, looked at the menu, and went in, or people walked right in knowing they wanted to go there, but of those people, only 4-10 of them put their name down on the list to wait. We waited close to an hour for a table. That’s how good this place is- and no, they do not take reservations.
My dining companion had been to Soba-ya on numerous previous occasions, and so I took suggestions on what to order. We started off with the kamo (duck) appetizer, and I chose a vegetable trio for my own appetizer (you get to pick three dishes from the vegetable appetizer list, for a price of $8.50 I believe). I chose a bitter, broccoli rabe-like vegetable with tiny shrimp, edamame (blanched soy beans still in the pod), and fresh bamboo with bonito flakes.
The broccoli rabe-like veggies were too bitter for my liking, though the edamame mellowed out my palate nicely. The bamboo was super fresh and yummy, though of course, the next night I had even fresher and yummier bamboo at morimoto nyc, that hadn’t yet happened to change my view on bamboo.
The kamo was melt in your mouth goodness. The white mound is actually grated radish, which I didn’t take too much of, and on the side were shiitake mushrooms and peppers. The mushroom was rich with the duck flavor. Seriously, though, the duck was so good I almost wanted to order more just for me.
Luckily, on his suggestion, I’d ordered the kamo seiro, which featured cold soba with a small bowl of (hot [temperature-wise] concentrated broth- with pieces of the same duck in it! (He ordered the same entree.)
They also include a dish of scallions for you to add as much or as little as you like. Can I tell you, this dish looks huge, but I was a bit disappointed that the soba is actually in a very shallow tray. It’s so good, with just the right amount of bite/chew to it, that I was really scraping the bottom looking for more strands of the yummy buckwheat noodles to eat. There was no lack of duck, though, to my pleasant happiness. I took a chopstick-full of soba, dipped it in the hot broth to warm it up, and then ate it like that. It was perfect.
When you are nearing the end of your soba, the waiter will bring you a small, almost teapot looking thing, filled with hot broth, to add to your dipping “sauce”, to thin it out in order that you drink it like a soup. That was a pleasant end to the entree.
To my great surprise, there were two things I really wanted to try on the dessert menu. I suppose part of the reason was that I rarely go out for dinner in this area, or perhaps I was just feeling piggy after running the day before (on a treadmill) for an hour, and for 30 minutes that day, either way, my dining companion strongly suggested we get three desserts (he wanted to sample the green tea/maccha creme brulee), and split them. Even though I knew he planned on having only a bite or two of mine, I agreed. They weren’t expensive, and they couldn’t be that big, could they?
I have a love/hate relationship with daifuku. When it’s good, I will travel great lengths to eat it. When it’s not, I swear it off for months at a time. This daifuku was good- see the interesting ‘utensil’ they gave me to poke it- although it was filled with a dark chocolate (dark chocolate good!) but too much chocolate. The chocolate was very goopy, almost thinner than pudding, which I wasn’t pleased with. However, the black sesame ice cream was heavenly. As soon as I tasted it, I said “Hmm” because it looked like cookies and cream (crumb-like flecks of black throughout) but the taste was so familiar. My companion tasted it and immediately blurted out, “Black sesame- like those tong yuan!” (ironic since he isn’t Chinese but I am) I love those tong yuan (literally, “soup round”), how the black sesame paste bursts into your mouth when you suck open a hole in them. Yummy!!! The abstract connection here being that the tong yuan are encased in something similar to the mochi in the daifuku (the skin, essentially).
Personally, I adore panna cotta, which is the Italian version of this dish (soft tofu with a slightly acidic sauce drizzled over it). This is just another variation, and this was really good. The acidity in the brandied strawberry sauce contrasted nicely with the soft mellow flavor of the tofu. Thumbs up for a better interpretation of Ony’s panna cotta.
Last but not least, the creme brulee; I am NOT a fan of creme brulee, and I hate it when it is served in a deep dish as opposed to the traditional shallow dish. I feel that there should be enough brulee (crispy “burned” part on top) for the whole custard, and when it’s deep dish, you inevitably have too much custard for the burnt sugar crust on top. That aside, the brulee part was good, the creme was good, together they were also good, but I still thought it was too deep. My companion, however, whose dessert it was, enjoyed it and cleaned it out. He generally enjoys Soba-ya’s creme brulees as well.
Yvo says: I would definitely go back to try other dishes, though I won’t be eating that much dessert any time soon. It was really good soba (though I’ve no point of comparison for soba in general), the duck was really good, a touch oily, but then duck usually is, and the desserts were well played and well presented. The appetizers weren’t shabby either; overall, I left with a pleasant dining memory and a full belly. Highly recommended for this type of cuisine- go here for good soba, and good overall food and ambiance. Service was pleasant and attentive.