One of Japan’s oldest soba parlors, Sarashina Horii, is now serving chilly piles of cold buckwheat noodles in Manhattan, a boon for a city that, against all logic, seems to prefer heartier bowls of tonkotsu or Bolognese in the dead of August. Soba, in shorter supply across the five boroughs, is more proper summertime food. Aficionados lift the beige noodles off a small bamboo mat, dip them in smoky tsuyu, and slurp. If frozen margaritas or piraguas are full-blown air conditioners for the digestive tract, soba channels the gentle breeze of a fan; you don’t seem to swallow them as much as you let the noodles glide down your throat. And unlike a richer pasta salad, soba doesn’t rely on fats like mayo or olive oil; think of the austere noodles as the carbohydrate equivalent of an iceberg wedge. It’s precisely the type of dish one might care to consume a few nights a week here at Horii.
Just one problem: Actually getting into this long-awaited Flatiron newcomer poses a bit of a challenge.
Horii, which has three locations in Japan, is booked up through late August. If you want to sample the venue’s prized white soba — a mild and springy variety that I haven’t encountered elsewhere — your best bet is showing up at 5 p.m., when the venue accommodates a few walk-ins. Or you could sign up for the notification feature on Resy, which pings you when there’s a cancellation, though sometimes those tables get snatched up within seconds. In other cases, you might get an email from the restaurant letting you know, through no fault of your own, that your coveted outdoor reservation has been canceled due to rain. Also: Online bookings are not available for solo diners.
Those who care about soba, however, should consider putting up with these inconveniences, because an early visit suggests chef Tsuyoshi Hori’s noodles and dipping sauces easily rank among the city’s best. The restaurant can be quite expensive — one could splurge on a $98 prix fixe with sashimi and tempura — though it’s possible to swing by for just soba and a beer, which would run about $31 after tax and tip.
Soba, in the words of Chicago chef Takashi Yagihashi, has two lives. “It’s a down-home soul food, like ramen, but it also has a more elegant side, elevated to a high art by celebrated soba chefs who prepare it from scratch,” he writes in his cookbook, Takashi’s Noodles. At the leading Tokyo soba spots, per Yagihashi, chefs source buckwheat directly from producers in the top soba-growing areas of the Japanese Alps, then grind the kernels into flour by hand. On that note: New Yorkers can always swing by unannounced to Azuma in Midtown or Sobaya in the East Village, and slurp down piles of estimable noodles for $12 or so a pop. Horii, by contrast, fills in a gap at the higher end of the spectrum. This isn’t the first local soba outpost to attempt this feat.
Honmura An occupied the center of the local soba universe for a time, earning a three-star rave from New York Times critic Ruth Reichl in 1993. It closed, alas, in 2007, when the owner returned to Tokyo to take over his late father’s restaurant. I never dined at Honmura An, but I loved the exorbitant and uber-chic Matsugen in Tribeca, which served some of the firmest and earthiest soba I remember sampling; it closed in 2011 after about three years of service.
I’m not sure anyone would describe Sarashina Horii as chic unless they were trying to describe a nice office lobby in Garden City, Long Island. The restaurant is clad in various shades of corporate brown. The music playlist is about as energetic as the hold music on a jury duty phone line. And the bar, which smells like the smoked whiskey cocktails that servers constantly ferry to tables, feels like the type of place where finance guys might wolf down a big steak while watching the game. Luckily, there’s none of that bro-y nonsense here. People are quiet. They eat and they slurp.
A server might suggest the white soba, or sarashina, which shares a name with the venue itself (“they are the bomb,” a bartender proclaims). Horii does all the grinding in Japan, removing the darker husks of buckwheat to produce a flour from the core of the seeds. The resulting noodle is nearly as white as a scallop, with a softer and less brittle texture than more traditional soba. They are the chicken breast of the soba world, by which I mean they’re a neutral conduit mechanism for other flavors. They deliver the smoky bonito punch of the tsuyu dipping sauce with remarkable clarity. They are buckwheat noodles for those who don’t like the taste of buckwheat. Cost: $17 for a regular, or $20 for a large, before add-ons like (soggy, bland) tempura shrimp.
The mori soba offer more complexity. Unlike the sarashina, which don’t have much of an aroma, the darker mori seem to emit a whisper of pine-y perfume. They’re more uniformly firm and toothsome than comparable noodles at Sobaya or Azuma — without any of the unpleasant gumminess that can set in at some venues — and they exhibit a delicate earthiness when chewed. To amp up the terroir funk, consider pairing them with kurumi, a luscious walnut dipping sauce that slicks and grips the soba like melted nut butter ice cream. Cost: $16, or $20 with the kurumi.
I finished both soba dishes in one sitting without suffering from any uncomfortable sense of fullness, though if I wasn’t eating professionally, a single order would have sufficed. I tried to sneak in for a second visit, but that ended up being about as much trouble as I expected. Resy pinged me a few times with cancellations, though usually on nights when I was elsewhere. On nights when I was free, things magically seemed to be booked up.
To be fair, Horii tells Eater it’s still not able to bring in chefs from Japan due to COVID travel restrictions, a reality that jibes with larger labor shortages in the hospitality industry. One would hope that Horii becomes more friendly to impromptu diners as it staffs up, and indeed, a rep says the restaurant is accommodating more walk-ins these days, especially at 5:00 p.m. And while Horii wasn’t my single best soba experience — that honor goes to the late Matsugen — this Flatiron newcomer is making very, very good noodles. I’ll be back as the weather gets colder to try the hot soba in broth.