For six years, Sushi Azabu secretly and then not-so-secretly lurked within and below Tribeca's Greenwich Grill, garnering a Michelin star in 2007. It's been a prized neighborhood gem for an excellent sushi bar omakase experience, and despite sharing an address and owner with Greenwich Grill, Azabu always stole the show. This past April, Japanese hospitality firm Plan-Do-See, which operates 12 restaurants and three hotels in Japan, decided to flip the space from Italian to Japanese, now centered on small izakaya-style plates and soba. And considering the team behind the place, Daruma-ya has lived surprisingly under the radar.
Daruma-ya, which is named after the traditional Japanese wishing doll or goal doll (a painted doll that's supposed to help the holder achieve a specific goal), is under culinary command of two chefs: Nobuhito Dosei formerly of Los Angeles' Michelin starred Mori Sushi, and soba master Shuichi Kotani of Soba Totto on E 43rd Street. Though Daruma-ya bills itself as an izakaya, it really embodies an upscale Japanese restaurant, but it's not quite refined enough to merit white tablecloths. White butcher paper protects tables instead. Daruma-ya also lacks the drinking culture of an izakaya, and the list of libations — which includes rice wine, grape wine, and cocktails — is presently a work in progress. So, Daruma-ya falls somewhere between the two. General Manager Nicolas Fanucci, who landed at Plan-Do-See after serving as GM at The French Laundry for seven years, is working on expanding the beverage selection to offer more reasonably priced bottles.
Affordability begins during lunch service. Daruma-ya aims to be casual and inexpensive enough during the day that locals can pop in for lunch sets under $20, composed of Japanese dishes, maki, and soba. There's grilled mackerel and Japanese curry, which arrives with rice, tofu, kobachi (small Japanese appetizers), and miso soup for between $11 and $16. Meanwhile two maki rolls run $12, or $16 with a salad and miso soup. For $13 to $16, cold or hot soba comes topped with grated yam or nameko mushrooms.
During dinner, there's a few ways to approach the menu. If a customer is looking for raw fish and can't score a seat down below at Azabu, Daruma-ya has several sashimi assortments made using Azabu's fish. Although fish change based on market availability, Daruma-ya customers end up dropping $30, $50, or $70 for three, five, or seven selections of sashimi, respectively. A totally solid deal considering that, down below, Azabu charges $35 for three types of sashimi, $70 for five, and $100 for seven. But the latter also includes a whole mackerel.
So, sushi is one option. Next come a smorgasbord of chef Dosei's hot and cold Japanese share plates. Though little-known in New York, Dosei worked under chef Morihiro Onodera at his namesake sushi bar, Mori Sushi, in Los Angeles. It's a restaurant that's considered a top omakase haunt in LA, and also a place that earned a Michelin star in 2007. Now New Yorkers have access to Dosei's dishes, like a creamy and delicate housemade tofu topped with uni and salmon roe, and an excellent mackerel collar with skin fried almost as crisp as a potato chip.
In addition to the sweet corn tempura, another house special is the foie gras sushi, which is exactly what the name suggests: Two mounds of seasoned rice topped with seared foie gras and crowned with nori. It may not be traditional edomae-style sushi, but it's addictively delicious nonetheless.
Much like yakitori, sushi, and ramen, soba in Japan is also considered a fast food. It's a dish one can order and eat quickly, which is why many soba restaurants in Japan are located near train and subway stations. That's also why some soba restaurants in Japan don't even have seats. But of course, there are higher end places as well, like Honmura An, which shuttered in New York but maintains an outpost in Tokyo. There, patrons watch a soba master roll out and slice soba dough as they slurp their bowl of buckwheat noodles.
Soba Totto's former soba chef Shuichi Kotani designed Daruma-ya's noodle menu. Kotani is a soba master (check out these badass pictures of him making fresh soba), and he's also the founder of a soba consulting company called Worldwide-Soba Inc. and worked with Aburiya Kinnosuke on its noodles.
Soba, which is a noodle made from the seed of the buckwheat plant, is divided into types based on the percent of buckwheat used. Juuwari is soba made entirely from buckwheat, while ni-hachi is soba made from buckwheat plus wheat flour. The flour can be further classified based on other factors like whether it's refined or whole buckwheat. (Daruma-ya uses a stone mill-ground buckwheat flour.) The variety of broths that accompany soba vary, but the noodles are most frequently consumed chilled, topped with nori.
Kotani's soba menu at Daruma-ya is comprised of hot and cold soba bowls using noodles made from 80 percent buckwheat flour and 20 percent white flour, plus water. Soba is notoriously hard to make because buckwheat, a naturally gluten-free grain, is delicate, and challenging to bind together without adding another glutinous flour. It's also highly susceptible to temperature and moisture. That's why most soba chefs add wheat flour to the soba dough. And it's at the super high end soba restaurants where one is mostly likely to find 90 to 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles made by a master.
Daruma-ya's soba is appropriately chewy, and imparts the earthy, nutty flavor of buckwheat. In hot soba dishes the noodles tend to soften up a bit, so the best bet here is cold tangles of soba topped with Santa Barbara uni or a soft, glue-y grated yam. The yam flavor isn't over-powering, and its slick texture paired with the cold noodles is refreshing.
Plan-Do-See's Managing Director Hiro Nishida says that the restaurant is still a work in progress at six months in, and the group is thinking about adding a yakitori section to the menu. But, even in its current state, Daruma-ya has early standouts. For years, Greenwich Grill was a gateway to Azabu, but thanks to a strong front-of-house and back-of-house team, Daruma-ya has earned consideration of its own.