A few years ago, a mass of buckwheat (soba) noodles piled into a shallow basket and presented to me as a meal made me balk. Soba, touted as a healthy noodle, sat heavily in my stomach. Condiments such as grated daikon, wasabi or sliced onion added to the sometimes fishy dipping sauce didn’t help.
Soba is an artisan noodle; taste depends on the maker. I kept trying. At last I was rewarded. After nine years in Japan, I finally found delectable soba. Fukuya, a small soba shop behind Utsunomiya City Hall serves soba noodles, cut finely in the windowed backroom with a ratio of buckwheat flour to wheat flour which has me salivating, especially in the summer; soba is a refreshing summer dish and the noodle preserves its taste and texture much better served cold.
Probably hundreds of soba restaurants exist in town, and granted, not everybody has the same preference in taste as I do but my Japanese husband, who I trust with my life, agrees that this is an excellent soba restaurant. Workers from the neighboring City Hall think so too – don’t go there on a weekday between 12-1! The place, which only seats about two dozen diners, is packed.
We usually go there for Saturday lunch. Beware – the menu is in Japanese so bringing along someone who reads Japanese is recommended. Prices are under Y1000 per dish. Try the tempura. My son, 3, won't eat onion normally, but won't share his onion tempura with us at Fukuya- it's so sweet and juicy, I don't think he realizes it's onion. If you feel adventurous, try the soba balls (sobagaki). At the end of your meal, you will get a pot of soba tea (water which the soba boiled in). Pour it into your dipping sauce for a lovely soup to finish off your meal.
Fukuya is an easy 5 minute walk from the south side of Utsunomiya City Hall. If you come by car, that's where you need to park. As you walk away from City Hall, from the south parking exit, go straight until you come to an apartment building. Find Fukuya next to a equally quaint Chinese restaurant at street level. You will see a soba flour grinding machine just inside the sliding door, to the right.
There are three long wooden tables, each can seat about 8, and a few stools at the counter where you can watch the chef prepare your meal. Let your eye wander as you wait for your order; a model plane hangs suspended from the ceiling, and collectibles line the shelves along the walls.