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Rakuichi Soba in Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Rating: 90.
Rating index:
Extraordinary (96-100)
Outstanding (93-95)
Very good to Excellent (89-92)
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From the outside Rakuichi Soba is an unassuming restaurant. It doesn't have a large sign, it's housed in a traditional Japanese wooden house/chalet, which you can reach by a narrow wooden bridge. As an unsuspecting foreigner you'd probably walk past without even knowing it's there. But today, everybody knows it's there. The restaurant became famous after it appeared in the Hokkaido episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations", and diners have been flocking to this soba restaurant ever since the series aired in 2011. I'm not a bucket list gal, but when I watched the episode, the thought "if I'm ever in the area" did cross my mind. In the end, when I was my planning my recent trip to Japan, Rakuichi Soba was one of the main reasons that Hokkaido made it on the itinerary.


Rakuichi Soba is located in Annupuri, part of Hokkaido's famous ski resort Niseko. Hokkaido/Niseko is relatively easy to travel to these days. Of course you can fly to Sapporo Airport and then drive to Niseko (like Bourdain did) or take the train. In autumn there is even a special Steam Locomotive service between Sapporo and Niseko, as described by Matt Goulding in his book Rice, Noodle, Fish (weekend service only). Another way to get to Hokkaido is taking the Shinkansen Hayabusa (bullet train) from Tokyo to Hakodate, which takes around 4 hours, and then rent a car and drive up to Niseko, which takes a little less than 3 hours (yep, I really wanted to go to this restaurant).

 
Rakuichi Soba is a 20-seat (with just 12 seats at the bar) soba restaurant run by Tatsuru Rai and his charming wife Midori, who takes excellent care of the sometimes challenging guests (more on that later). The highlight of a visit to the restaurant is watching soba master Tatsuru Rai quietly transforming local buckwheat flour and water into dough, which is then rolled meticulously into a thin rectangle shape, and finally masterfully cut into the perfect soba by hand. A serene and mesmerising performance that most people watch in silence. When Tatsuru Rai worked his soba magic on stage during the 4th MAD symposium in Copenhagen, the audience (around 300 of them) watched in awe and silence (see video). But as I said, most people.

Unfortunately on the night I was there the restaurant had an especially obnoxious group of "diners" in; seven of them were seated at the 12-seat bar, the rest (probably 4 or 5) were seated at a table in a separate room. This group's sole purpose that night seemed to be to be as loud as possible and they were clearly desperate to "share" as much as possible of their experience on social media, preferably instantly. Basically they took over the entire restaurant, walking around with their cameras and iPhones, totally oblivious and indifferent to the other guests. Let's be clear (I am not a hypocrite), I too take photographs in restaurants with my iPhone, but I always try to be discrete and respectful to other guests. And most importantly the food has to, and always will, take first place. I always shoot from the hip (so to speak). If I get a nice shot, fine, if not, also fine.


Sure enough they went crazy when Tatsuru Rai started making his soba noodles, turning something that was supposed to be calm and peaceful, into a vulgar circus. I mentioned this to one of them. He shrugged. I guess this shows that Bourdain fame combined with social media peer pressure is a potentially toxic combination. Anything for that perfect Instagram Moment, right?

But now for the food. Rakuichi Soba is open for lunch and dinner Thursday through Tuesday. At lunchtime it's walk-ins only and there's a small menu with a choice of hot or cold soba noodles priced between ¥1,000 (£7) and ¥1,600 (£11). In the evening they serve a multi-course Kaiseki menu reasonably priced at ¥10,000 (£68). Booking is essential (my Niseko hotel had made the reservation for me) and the restaurant doesn't accept credit cards. I had dinner with my husband at Rakuichi Soba in March 2018 and we had a 10-course Kaiseki menu.

Tonight's menu started with a slice of perfectly cut cured mackerel, beautifully presented on a thin sheet of radish, and topped with some cress, yuzu zest and a mild vinegar and yuzu dressing seasoned with a drop of soy sauce. An excellent start of the meal, the mackerel being pure and slightly creamy.


Supremely tender toro tuna sashimi followed, which melted into fatty goodness once in the mouth. Third course was a glorious, gently smoked scallop, simply served with some wasabi and soy sauce. Apart from firming up the flesh, the added caramelly smokiness contrasted splendidly with the cool creaminess and sweetness of the scallop.






Fourth course was a wonderful piece of red snapper (skin on) served in a delicate red snapper broth seasoned with some yuzu zest. An elegant and pleasing dish, the yuzu giving it a nice zingy finish. 


On the fifth course, called "Bonitos on Bonito". A slice of blow-torched bonito was topped with quite thick shavings of katsuobushi (dried bonito) and garnished with thinly sliced spring onions, a combination that lacked smoothness and in the end delivered a very dry mouthfeel. More convincing was the next dish, a smooth mixture of toro and onions called Negitoro. A wonderful flavour marriage, the onion lifting the toro flavours nicely but also providing a nice long aftertaste.




Seventh course was shabu shabu of Iberico pork loin with each guest having his/her own little hotpot with a kelp and bonito stock. A lovely and tasty experience.




Almost time for the "pièce de résistance", but first we were served some seasonal vegetable tempura. Meanwhile Tatsuru-san (I believe I'm supposed use this "I'm in the know" term here) started prepping his dough for the soba noodles. As soon as the group got wind of this, most of them jumped from their seats and circled his working station with their cameras and iPhones, capturing their Facebook and Instagram moments, literally putting every "Kodak Moment" in history to shame. A plate of tempura was left untouched in the process. 

Luckily Tatsuru-san seemed to be unimpressed and undisturbed by finding himself in this 21st century, tenth circle of Dante's Inferno (called: "Social Media"), and produced the most immaculately pure soba with the perfect bite and unadulterated buckwheat flavours - clean tasting but hearty at the same time. At Rakuichi Soba you can have you soba hot or cold. I opted for cold, which means they were accompanied by a Mentsuyu (soy, mirin, sake, katsuobushi) dipping sauce, together with the soba offering the ultimate in simplicity.







A simple and elegant dessert of strawberries and condensed milk concluded the meal.

The Japanese are very punctual and of course my husband and I made sure to arrive on time for dinner at Rakuichi Soba - in fact we arrived some 10 to 15 minutes early. After a warm and inviting welcome by Midori Rai we were guided to our seats and for the next 10 minutes or so we just sat there quietly watching Tatsuru Rai doing the final preparations for that night's meal, whilst enjoying a glass of Kamotsuru Junmai Dajginjo Tokusei Gold sake. Luckily this way we got to enjoy the warmth and intimacy of the restaurant before the "apres ski" group arrived. The night was saved by the warmth and brilliant service of Midoro, wo handled the group as best she could and made sure the other guests still had a good experience. The annoying group aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Rakuichi Soba, which was very much an experience of time and place. I did feel sorry for Tatsuru-san for having to perform for this raucous audience. At Rakuichi Soba ingredients and guests are treated with the utmost respect. You'd hope the guests would return the favour to the restaurant.



Posted 25-05-2018




 
 
 
 

 
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