Soba Sunday @ Hiro Sushi (171 King East, at Jarvis, 416-304-0550) Complete meals for $35 per person, including all taxes, tip and a sake. Average main $20. Open Sunday only 11:30 am to 3 pm. Closed Monday to Saturday. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Noodle joints are a dime a dozen in this town. We have everything from inexpensive Vietnamese pho dispensaries to high-end Italian pasta parlours. But barely one serves fresh soba.
For the past three years, Tetsua "Ted" and Eiko Iizuka have been hosting Soba Sunday at Hiro Sushi on the sole day of the week when one of downtown's most highly rated Japanese restos isn't slicing and dicing raw fish. Sure, soba can be found on the menu of most cheap sushi shacks and even a trendy trat or two, but only the Iizukas make their whole-grain knife-cut buckwheat noodles from scratch. And they're macrobiotic to boot.
They start with 100 per cent natural buckwheat grown in Manitoba. Stored in cold cellars before being vacu-packed to preserve its nutrients, the grain's then shipped to the couple's Mississauga base, where it's ground and kneaded Sunday mornings to become the main ingredient of their weekly noodle noshes.
If stuffing your face is the dining objective, there's a Golden Griddle down the street. But for those wanting to experience the ascetic aesthetic of traditional Japanese cooking, there's no better experience than Soba Sunday.
The ritual begins with a nutty mug of roasted soybean tea that's not only unusually tasty but said to be good for countering hypoglycemia as well. It's accompanied by dry-fried soybeans and buckwheat crackers decorated with watercress leaf and spread with sweet miso jam. The effect's not unlike a very health-conscious bridge mix.
While the card includes such austere items as Zaru Soba (cold noodles with dipping sauce, $13), the best bang for the buck has to be Okonomi Soba ($20), a sampling of the kitchen's three most popular dishes. Snow Crab Soba ($21 as a main) - enticingly described on the menu as "Put the leg meat on top which is the gift from the Atlantic Ocean. Heavenly harmony. Gorgeous!" - finds four pink criss-crossed limbs atop a pile of chilled soba swimming in tsuyu, a flavourful broth rich with soy sauce, sugary mirin and bonito flakes.
The same tsuyu enhances Zaru Tororo ($15), topped with a pudding-like purée of Japanese yam, while Oboro Soba ($19) finds the toothsome strands of buckwheat augmented by a creamy pillow of house-made organic tofu garnished with slivered scallions. Go ahead and slurp. Not just permissible, in Japan it's considered a sign of great sophistication.
The ceremony concludes with a square lacquered teapot of soba-yu, the liquid left over from boiling the noodles - dishwater to some. Like buckwheat itself, it's loaded with rutin, the flavonoid used to treat high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis. To finish, we polish off a dainty square of lemon sponge cake made of soybean flour dolloped with whipped cream, diet be damned.
Besides their Sunday Soba gig, the Iizukas give catered demonstrations and cooking classes the rest of the week. Check out their website ( sobacanada.com) for more information. But they refuse to sell their soba to other restaurants.
"Fresh soba has a shelf life of only two days at the most before it loses its nutritional value," explains Ted Iizuka. "I doubt if anyone would be honest enough not to use it after that."
Soba crosses over
Over in Baldwin Village, cozy Konnichiwa (31 Baldwin, at Henry, 416-593-8538) doesn't make its soba on the premises but has it shipped freeze-dried from Japan instead.
You really notice the difference with its Kakiage Soba ($6.50), a large bowl of mild-mannered broth brimming with buckwheat pasta and sided with a pair of tempura-battered veggie fritters the size and texture of doughy baseballs. Delicious enough, the noodles lack the bite of the real deal. But the squiggly ramen - available in several versions, including one layered with thinly sliced beef and wilted Asian greens in garlicky miso ($8.95) - easily bests Izakaya's pricier interpretation. And the house throws in a respectable pair of deep-fried gyoza stuffed with minced beef 'n' veg with its noodle soup as well.