Behind the Soba at Forthcoming Daruma-Ya With Soba Master Shuichi Kotani


Subterranean Sushi Azabu has built a reputation as one of the best omakase experiences in the city; take a table in the snug den, and you’ll be privy to plate after plate of dazzling seafood, sometimes draped silky and raw over a pat of rice, other times mixed into inventive izakaya dishes or set in custard. Come April, the restaurant above Azabu will turn into a Japanese concept with the potential to be as intriguing: Greenwich Grill is set to give way to Daruma-Ya (428 Greenwich Street), a Japanese izakaya and soba house.

The Plan-do-see group, which owns both restaurants, has tapped Nobuhito Dosei to head the izakaya portion of the restaurant; the chef worked his way up in Michelin-starred kitchens before becoming a private chef for celebrities. Soba master Shuichi Kotani will helm the buckwheat noodle program, and he brings serious chops: He made soba for Joel Robuchon, and he’s taught Top Chef’s Gail Simmons, chefs Takashi Yagihashi and Lee Anne Wong, and author Candice Kumai his craft, in addition to a number of NYC’s Japanese chefs, who apply his lessons in their own kitchens.

Kotani learned to make soba in Japan, where he spent 10 years mastering the art of the noodle. “Buckwheat is very hard,” he says. “Ramen is easier.” When he relocated to the States six years ago, he launched Worldwide Soba, Inc., a consulting company through which he teaches others to make soba and rolls and cuts the noodles himself for many restaurants around town. You can also find him at Nikai in Midtown, where he makes soba for that restaurant and many of his other clients.

Soba, he explained, was likely invented in Nepal but came to Tokyo 200 years ago when that city’s dwellers began to get beriberi — an illness attributed to vitamin B1 deficiency — because they only ate white rice. Buckwheat is flush with B1, and it also contains many other nutrients, which makes it popular with health nuts. Kotani swears it cures everything from a hangover to high blood pressure, and that’s created a demand for soba houses: Now, says Kotani, “there are 5,000 soba noodle restaurants in Japan, and no one makes buckwheat at home.”

Here in New York, however, there are only a few restaurants that make soba, partially because it is so difficult to do. It’s also hard to get the right buckwheat, which Kotani says must be imported from Japan: “Japanese buckwheat is ground by stonemill,” he explains. “You don’t want to get rid of the nutrients. American buckwheat is much drier. It’s cheaper but it’s difficult to make it into noodles.”

Noodles are made with just buckwheat, a little bit of regular flour, and water. “I can also make 100 percent buckwheat noodles, but it’s very hard,” says Kotani. “But it’s gluten-free.” The noodles need ideal conditions, too, and in Japan, says the chef, many restaurants have a special room for soba-making. The pasta should be made fresh every 30 minutes, and it requires just 20 seconds of boiling time.

And make sure you drink the soba water, says Kotani — it’s full of nutrients.

On the next page, Kotani gives a demonstration.

American flour is on the left here; Japanese is on the right.

First, Kotani sifts his bend of buckwheat and wheat flour and adds water.

He kneads vigorously until the dough comes together.

Ultimately, he forms a very smooth ball…

…which he rolls into a perfect circle.

Once that circle is very wide and very thin, he rolls it around a pair of sticks, which makes it resemble a scroll.

He then folds the dough and uses a press and blade to cut thin noodles.

Finished noodles go into a special box for transport so they’re not ruined by humidity fluctuations.