Soba noodles, which are made of buckwheat, have been a favorite fast-food meal of busy Tokyoites ever since the early days of the bustling capital, in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was still known as Edo.
Today, time-pressed diners in Tokyo can still duck into one of many soba stands found all over the city, slurp their noodles at the counter and be gone within minutes.
But those who prefer to eat their soba in a more relaxed and stylish atmosphere can go to a handful of establishments such as Chojuan, a soba restaurant in the affluent Aoyama district.
Although Chojuan is located right on the broad avenue known both as Aoyama-dori and Route 246, a few blocks from the Aoyama Itchome metro station, its tasteful yet somewhat discreet storefront makes it easy to miss. With its autumnal-themed floral arrangement outside, wooden lattice door and noren (shopfront curtain), it just looks like – and is – far more than a noodle shop.
Once inside, the constant stream of diners coming in for their favorite tray of cold noodles or steaming bowl of hot soba attests to the popularity of the place.
Like restaurants that serve Tokyo’s other favorite “traditional” fast-food, sushi, soba shops are generally lively places where customers are greeted with a spirited “irasshaimase!” or “welcome!” Despite its refined décor and pleasing interior, Chojuan is no exception, as the staff of efficient older women call out greetings and thank yous with each departure and arrival.
Still, the hustle and bustle of a peak lunchtime meal here is tempered by the soothing atmosphere, achieved by the many decorative touches, such as the massive ikebana floral arrangement that dominates the dining room.
The menu at Chojuan displays many old favorites as well as some unusual soba combinations.
On a recent visit, we ordered a bowl of cold soba noodles topped with mozuku, a feathery seaweed, and a bowl of hot noodles topped with yuba (tofu skin) cooked in egg. Both are relatively unusual items to see on a mainstream soba shop menu. But as we said, this is no ordinary noodle eatery.
The tiny, feathery fronds of mozuku are commonly served in a piquant vinegar marinade as an appetizer in a multi-course meal. The mozuku is almost too soft to mix with hot soba noodles, although the flavor was pleasing.
The yuba and egg-topped hot noodles, which came in a large, ceramic bowl, had the right amount of dashi-based broth and made for a light yet filling meal.
On the other hand, the generous serving of soba with mozuku needed more soba tsuyu (dashi and soy-based broth), which our server graciously provided. The tsuyu at Chojuan is more refined, with its delicately balanced flavor, than the much stronger and sweetish “old Tokyo” variety found at traditional Tokyo establishments such as Kanda Yabu Soba in Kanda or Muromachi Sunaba in Akasaka – or at numerous local soba shops in the old “shitamachi” district.
The soba noodles here, with their bouncy, freshly-made texture, tasted just right.
As a side dish, we ordered cold tofu, which was deliciously rich and had a silky texture accentuated by the garnishes of crisp chirimen jyako (dried baby sardines), myoga (Japanese ginger) and finely chopped banno negi (green onion).
However, another side dish, the nishin (herring) in a shoyu-based sweet and savory sauce, was too sweet for our liking.
Many of the diners at Chojuan were gone within less than half an hour of arriving, but we were able to linger well after finishing our meal, sipping the soba-yu (the hot water used to boil the soba, which is full of nutrients) seasoned with the soba tsuyu or sauce, and complimentary green tea.
Address: 1F Watanabe Building
2-6-18 Minami- Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo
Tel : 03-3401-3619
Lunch : 11:00-15:00
Dinner : 17:30-20:00
Closed : Saturday, Sunday and national holidays.
Prices range from Y700 for a tray of cold soba to Y1,500 for a tray of cold soba with duck.