Since 2008, Shuichi Kotani has been supplying freshly made soba noodles to some of the top restaurants in New York — including Yakitori Torishin, Momokawa, and the now-closed Kibo, where he worked alongside Joël Robuchon — and he’s finally getting his own place in Greenpoint, in an area that’s shaping up as a hub of Japanese cuisine.
The behind-the-scenes soba master will open Uzuki, at 95 Guernsey Street, near Norman Avenue, on Thursday, starting with dinner service. The menu flaunts an array of buckwheat-based dishes like duck shio or salmon ikura noodle soups, sesame custard, and ice cream in New York.
Soba — which refers to both buckwheat and buckwheat noodles — hasn’t quite had the mainstream cache of ramen or udon in the States. Yet despite recent closures of soba parlors such as Sarashina Horii and Soba Totto, Kotani is still betting on the demand for soba.
Buckwheat is a gluten-free whole grain so it’s difficult to produce a smooth, stretchy noodle, and it’s sensitive to variations in temperature, humidity, and even local tap water, says Kotani. “It’s the impossible noodle.”
Many soba restaurants incorporate anywhere from 20 and 50 percent whole wheat flour into their noodles, while Kotani’s soba noodles are made of only two ingredients: water and buckwheat. The difference is apparent in that Kotani’s noodles are more rustic, nutty, and grainy.
Kotani, who is from Hyōgo Prefecture, started his soba journey with research on cancer-fighting foods (his mother died from cancer when he was young), followed by his professional tutelage under a soba master in Japan.
He went on to become a chef in Tokyo, where he was recruited to work in the kitchen of Soba Totto in New York. That move led to 25 years of working with restaurants around the world in different capacities — from supplying soba under his brand Towari to consulting on in-house production of noodles.
The search culminates with Uzuki, a converted warehouse — with 32 tables and a counter — where he can focus on cooking, and sharing, various iterations of buckwheat in an airy and tranquil space.
Of his seven signature soba noodle dishes, Kotani is excited about duck shio soba. In his rendition, he prepares duck four ways — roasted, confit, Beijing-style, and as a bone broth simmered for six hours and pepped up with yuzu. He tops the noodle soup with slabs of duck, verdant buckwheat sprouts that he’s growing at the restaurant, boiled buckwheat seeds, spinach, and fried scallions.
The appetizers, drinks, and desserts feature buckwheat, too. The soba goma tofu is a custard made from buckwheat flour, kuzu starch, sesame paste, and soy milk. A soba-infused tea provides the base of a sweet jelly that’s served with soybean powder and brown sugar syrup. A soba ice cream is topped with crispy, salty buckwheat seeds.
For the sheer breadth of preparations, Kotani says, “This is how I can spread the word about soba.”