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Using the Noodle

A new West Oakland restaurant gives a staple of Japanese cuisine its delicious, hand-done due.


Jyuwari soba with a side of pickled napa cabbage and bukkake soba with grated mountain yam.

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Paul Discoe designed the interiors using elm, cypress, sycamore, black acacia, deodar and iron-black eucalyptus.

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Kamo nanban soba with sliced duck breast.

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It takes chef Koichi Ishii around 40 minutes to handmake each batch of soba.

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Here’s a question I’ve been noodling over: Why is ramen a local fetish while its buckwheat cousin, soba, has been overlooked, relegated largely to a role as packaged dry good or limp bento-box side dish? The answer, I believe, lies partly with Tampopo and Top Ramen, among other culinary touchstones that lend ramen a resonance that soba lacks. But it also has to do with ramen’s salty, fatty profile and its rightful reputation as lusty, late-night booze food sanctioned by the cool-dude likes of David Chang. Then there’s the matter of learning curves and labor. Soba is, at its best, handmade—but handmade soba does not come quick or cheap.

Whatever the underlying explanations, the noodle imbalance feels unjust. The good news is that the dining arc bends toward better, broader options. And, these days, it points toward Soba Ichi, a fine showcase of that rarity of rarities—soba made from scratch—in the West Oakland space where Korean-inspired FuseBox used to sit.

The team behind the restaurant has ties to Ippuku in downtown Berkeley, a terrific izakaya and an island of adulthood in a sea of underwhelming campus-area eats. Included on that roster is Paul Discoe, a talented woodworker and part owner of both places. Having built out Ippuku’s Zen-like interior, Discoe has done the same for Soba Ichi. Cross the patio that faces the street; turn left through the bar that doubles as the restaurant’s entrance and you’re in a dining room with a grid of blond wood tables and benches that are far more comfortable than they appear. String lights lace the ceiling. Mismatched pendant fixtures dangle from above. It’s Eastern-monastery-meets-Western-warehouse chic. Chef Koichi Ishii, who staffers describe as a “soba master,” acquired the title not as a rite of passage on a misty mountaintop, but, says a server: “Oh, he’s just been working hard at it for a long time.”

Just inside the entrance is a glassed-in nook where Ishii goes about his noodle-making duties, grinding buckwheat grown in Washington into flour on a stone mill that was fashioned in Japan. His diligence gives rise to two kinds of soba: jyuwari, which is made from 100 percent buckwheat flour; and nihachi, an 80 to 20 percent mix of buckwheat and wheat flour. Both types are nutty in flavor, though that nuttiness runs deeper in the all-buckwheat jyuwari. The chef makes this style in limited supply—no more than 20-some-odd servings per day—and offers it in only one preparation: unseasoned, chilled and piled on a thatch-work wooden plate with a dipping sauce of dashi, mirin, soy sauce and sugar; and sides of grated daikon, wasabi and pickled cabbage to toss into the sauce for added bite.

The pliancy of the noodles falls somewhere between licorice and linguini, but closer to the latter, and its earthy traits, when slicked with dipping sauce, take on traces of sweetness and umami. Never mind revenge: I can’t think of a dish that’s better served cold. Yet the best part is still to come. Once you’ve polished off the soba, a server arrives with a warm kettle of the water it was cooked in. Pour this water into the dipping sauce, and there you have it: a delicious digestif, your after-dinner tea. The kitchen also doles out soba as hot soup, but only the wheat-flour-mixed nihachi noodles, which hold together nicely—as jyuwari soba will not—in the steaming dashi broth. The soup comes in variations on a theme: a light, bright version brimming with spindly nameko mushrooms and grated daikon, and another with green onions and Japanese parsleylike mitsuba. There’s also one stocked with simmered herring that—spoiler alert—requires a taste for a certain fishy funk. My favorite iteration comes enriched with fat-rimmed slices of roasted duck, which nudged the dish toward the more primal realm of ramen.

Even in this case, though, there’s an elegance to soba, with its slippery feel and tender resistance that makes slurping it seem almost refined.

Not that you’re in for a prissy night. The menu also features plenty of beer, sochu and sake (including a sake brewed right next door), as well as an array of spot-on Japanese starters and share plates—ranging from rice dishes to eclectic tempura—that work in symbiosis with the drinks. One of several musts is the mushidori: slivers of poached, chilled chicken breasts gussied up with a shiso-perfumed ginger-and-herb salad, and garnished with a sticky sauce of salted plum. You’d also be wise to go with the boiled gyoza, delicate dumplings of minced duck and chicken bathed in a spicy black vinegar sauce. I’d also make an argument for the kamo miso musubi, a seaweed-wrapped rice ball, smeared with a mix of ground duck and miso paste.

Dinner service is still getting up to speed. But dinner service is also new to Soba Ichi, which originally opened last summer as a lunch-only spot, then shut down briefly and reopened in mid-January, offering dinner five nights a week (there is talk of reviving lunch on weekends). The shift makes sense, not only for the address on an industrial block with minimal foot traffic, but also for the food and mood at Soba Ichi, the kind of place where you’re inclined to eat and drink, then maybe eat and drink a little more.

Where a restaurant operates, and what it serves, has increasingly grown into a hot-button topic in concerned discussions over gentrification. Soba Ichi has not escaped that talk. There’s no doubt it stands out in West Oakland. Then again, it would stand out in a lot of places. It has kept its prices relatively low too. Nothing on the menu fetches more than $25 (prices at FuseBox, which was owned and operated by longtime local residents, ran higher); many items cost under $10. One of these is a sobacha mousse, or buckwheat tea, crowned with sobacha gelee—a sublime dessert with hints of toasted grains that bring the meal full circle. It’s another example of beautifully simple cooking at a beautifully simple restaurant that would make a fine addition to any neighborhood.

Soba Ichi
2311 Magnolia St., West Oakland, 510.465.1969
Small Plates/Tempura/Rice Dishes, $6-$12; Soba, $14-$25
Wed.-Thu. & Sun., 5-9pm; Fri.-Sat., 5- 10pm

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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