One summer, when I was visiting my grandparents in Tokyo, my mother introduced me to a terrific Japanese film: Tampopo, by director Juzo Itami. Since then I have watched Tampopo many times. I never tire of this film, partly for the humor and the wonderful cast of characters, but mainly for the spectacular and inventive portrayal of food. The premise is simple: a woman wants to open the perfect noodle restaurant and, with the help of two truck drivers (including the young Ken Watanabe), sets off on an adventure to find the best ramen recipe. Along the way we encounter a gangster dressed in a white suit and his beautiful lover, (they enjoy erotic games with food, here is the famous egg scene where man and woman exchange an egg yolk from mouth to mouth before popping the yolk and embracing), a resourceful homeless man who prepares an omelet over rice for a little boy, an exhausted mother who cooks a meal for her family before collapsing….

I grew up eating rice at almost every meal, so it was always a relief and a surprise when my mother served us udon or soba noodles in a miso broth with fresh vegetables, shiitake mushrooms, and if we were lucky, a few slices of beef. I can remember eating a gigantic bowl of udon noodles with my host family in Japan when I was fifteen, watching as my host sister loudly slurped her steaming ramen noodles to cool them down before they entered her hungry mouth. Perhaps one of the best meals I had was with my cousin and her husband. We had left their tiny crammed apartment in Tokyo and ventured to a small hole-in-the wall ramen restaurant. I ate ramen with pork and a rich and creamy broth.

Ippudo

Recently I went to Ippudo and found myself overwhelmed by the loud music and boisterous atmosphere. The selection was good, Bjork and LCD Soundsystem, but so loud that I could not hear myself munching on the food. I waited two hours for a table and then watched waiters run around shouting “Irashaimase!!!” as though their lives depended on this sentence of welcome. The fried green peppers were tender, salty and delicious. The broth was very rich and felt like a meal in itself. The portion was huge, but I ate all the noodles and sipped the broth until my bowl was empty. When I asked the waiter whether there was MSG in the food he said: “Of course, we put it in everything, the toppings, the broth, and anyway it is a Japanese thing.” Ok, I thought, fine, but that isn’t a very satisfying explanation. Even though I enjoyed my meal, even though the food was flavorful and with interesting combinations of flavors, I did leave with a bloated stomach and my ears ringing as though I had spent three hours at a loud concert. They make you wait for two hours, and they rush you in and out in forty-five minutes. The food was, for my taste, too rich and so salty that I had to gulp down three glasses of water when I got home. The MSG gave me headache and made my teeth tingle.

The film Tampopo makes me wonder whether the perfect noodle restaurant does exist. And it seems, when it comes to noodles, that we all have our favorite place. I have found mine. It is in Paris, on rue Sainte-Anne, the Japanese neighborhood. It is called Kunitoraya.


Kunitoraya is a small restaurant with a long line. People stand outside during lunchtime waiting patiently to be seated. There are dozens of other Japanese restaurants on the street, and yet this is the one with the longest line, the tastiest food. I went to Kunitoraya with my mother for the first time. I was sixteen, in high school, and still living in the outskirts of Paris. We took the train and got off at the Pyramides métro stop close to the Galeries Lafayette. The line moved quickly. When we made it inside we were seated at the small counter, where we got a good view of the tiny rectangular kitchen and kept an eye on our food, as it was swiftly prepared.

The two main dishes on the menu are the rice bowls and the udon noodles. The rice bowls are topped with an egg, meat, a sauce and onions. The best ones are with duck, thinly sliced beef or fried pork cutlet (Katsudon). I alternate between rice bowls and udon noodles just because these rice bowls are perfectly balanced and filling creations. For the beef rice bowl, the cook throws the sliced onions with the sauce in a small pan, lets this simmer for a few minutes, then adds the choice of meat, and at the last minute pours the whisked egg into the pan. He spoons a generous serving of rice, slides the egg-meat-onion mix onto the rice, and garnishes the bowl with pickles and nori. Sometimes up to three small pans are cooking at the same time.

The udon noodles are homemade, prepared in the morning by the owner of the restaurant Mr. Nomoto. They are served cold or hot, and the restaurant offers many different choices. My favorites are the udon noodles with tempura vegetables and shrimp (served on the side so the tempura remains crispy), the curry udon with beef (a thicker and richer broth with a mild traditional Japanese curry), and the house noodles with a light miso broth and pork slices.

The portions are a perfect size, the broth not too salty but full of body and flavor, the noodles a perfect firmness, and the combination of ingredients is simple enough so that this is the kind of food one can eat every day and any day. You will get deliriously drunk just by smelling the broth, especially if you have been walking around Paris on a winter night. The white, fat, al dente udon noodles, made with flour, water and salt, keep your teeth working hard and diligently! I assure you, this humble noodle restaurant will have you coming back for more. The prices are reasonable, ranging from 9-14 euros, depending on the dish.

On a busy day you may find yourself relegated to the basement, where there is extra seating in two cave-like rooms with stonewalls. It feels slightly claustrophobic downstairs, maybe because you don’t have the expanse of a view over the street or onto the bustling kitchen, but the food tastes just as delicious, and it is quiet enough so that you can enjoy a nice conversation. But if you don’t mind the wait, I suggest you snag a seat at the counter. There you will see the perfectly orchestrated dance of the cooks and servers, as they concoct dozens of dishes without dropping a spoon or raising their voices. It reminds me of a fine dining open kitchen, just as clean and efficient, except on a much smaller scale. Everyone at Kunitoraya is full or part Japanese, everyone speaks Japanese, and you will hear the waiters and cooks talking to one another in hushed tones so as to not disturb the customers.

You will see many businessmen and women eating solo, enjoying a bowl of rice or noodles at the counter before returning to work. Or mixed couples, Japanese women and French men mostly, well-dressed and hip, talking in perfect French or maybe even Japanese, as they sip a hot Japanese brown rice or green tea. Or then myself, half-Japanese half-French, with my Japanese mother. And there will be a few tourists, those who stumbled upon the restaurant and followed the longest line, or those who have someone in the know, and were told that THIS is the place to go to. They were right.

Remember to bring cash (cash only), kitchen closes at 10pm.

Check out their beautiful website with the longest noodles you may have ever seen: Kunitoraya

There are two locations in Paris, and one in Japan, but I would urge you to go to the rue Sainte-Anne location @ 39, rue Sainte Anne, 75001 Paris, (01 47 03 33 65).

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2 Responses to “A Japanese State of Mind — The Dance of the Noodles”

  1. I have not checked in here for a while since I thought it was getting stale, but the last several posts are really good so I guess I will add you back to my daily bloglist. You deserve it my friend. :)

  2. Jean says:

    man i just love to eat everything but asian food in general is the best