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Robert Sietsema

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First Look: Udon Rains Down on Union Square at TsuruTonTan

Critic Robert Sietsema’s initial take on the Japanese udon chain

Salty, creamy, and garnished with a bright green shiso leaf, mentaiko caviar udon ($16) is the flagship of TsuruTonTan’s cold noodle fleet. A wad of cod roe sits on top, and the pale orange sauce is also bobbing with the tiny roe. This is perfect summer fare. Calling cod roe caviar is overstating the case a bit, but the udon still manage to dominate. These udon are the best you’ve ever tasted: plumper, firmer, and a bit darker than usual, and less gluey than you’ve come to expect from this wheat noodle that — overshadowed by soba and ramen — has waited forever for its time in the spotlight.

TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie is the rather belabored name for this first branch of a revolutionary Japanese udon joint to open in the United States. The original Japanese name translates TsuruTonTan — Noodle Craftsman's Hospitality, with "tsuru ton tan" intended to mimic the successive sounds of the noodle being made. Founded in 1989, there are now 12 restaurants in Japan. The chain chose an auspicious New York City location — the former Union Square Cafe, having become too expensive for Danny Meyer. The new build-out is a jumble of glitz, and devotees of the former tenant won’t recognize it. There are four levels and at least seven smallish dining rooms, with arresting wall treatments that run from cobalt blue to bright orange to various shades of gray.

The menu is a huge gatefold document with dozens upon dozens of color photos. In addition to udon noodles in about two dozen permutations, it offers over-rice dishes, sashimi assortments, maki rolls, tempura, ribeye steak, grilled duck breast, salads, and katsu cutlets. Somewhat disappointingly, the bill of fare allows its focus to waver from udon, and the place aims to be a full-blown Japanese restaurant rather than a noodle specialist, in contrast to other upscale noodle imports like Ippudo. The udon are made on the premises daily from ingredients flown in from Japan, as our friendly waitress told us.

TsuruTonTan Robert Sietsema
TsuruTonTan’s caviar udon Nick Solares

Spicy tuna cones [by Robert Sietsema]; fried chicken and caviar udon [by Nick Solares]

What goes into udon? Water, white wheat flour, and salt are the sole ingredients, and the rolled-out dough is knife-cut into strands of squarish cross section. At TsuruTonTan you can choose thick or thin. Servings arrive in giant ceramic bowls glazed reddish bronze. My fellow diner and I also tried sukiyaki udon ($19), another of the restaurant’s signatures. It contained big hanks of beef shredded like ragged clothes, with swatches of Napa cabbage. Laced with brown sukiyaki sauce, the broth proves a bit too sweet for some, but just sweet enough for others.

Other bowls of udon include kitsune udon ("fox" udon, so named because of its pelt of deep-fried tofu), uni udon, a deluxe udon with a half-dozen add-ins, katsu curry udon, and mushroom-egg drop udon. The restaurant also touts a handful of its starters, and we tried two. Both were disappointing. Four "spicy tuna cones" ($12) looked like they had been inspired by Thomas Keller’s famous salmon tartare coronets: a wad of tuna mashed with mayo inside a cone that might have been a tortilla chip. Hidden inside was a schmear of guacamole. The nuggets of fried chicken, a Japanese restaurant staple, were palely fried and low on flavor. They came engulfed in a dark pink tartar sauce shot with pickled vegetables.

Stick with the udon and pick the simplest presentations, and you’ll have a memorable meal. Hopefully, the lines will dwindle, and you’ll be able to walk in anytime. Or maybe I’m just dreaming.

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