With cold weather setting in, what better lunch than a soothing bowl of soba (that’s buckwheat noodles to you Anglophones) swimming in hot broth?
Now chase that with a good-size bowl of rice topped with stir-fried chunks of beef short ribs, or maybe fried oysters or thick slices of black cod, or maybe flakes of grilled salmon, salmon roe and shredded egg, or fried chicken and veggie chunks in a sweet and sour sauce. Better yet, perhaps bits of tuna, avocado and cucumber.
On the side, enjoy a few small plates that, depending on the day, might consist of shreds of seaweed, flakes of a tasty fish cake, soft squash cubes or bits of pickled vegetables. And start it all off with a crunchy small green salad topped with shreds of ginger in a tangy dressing.
Get the idea? Soba Totto may be more costly than your usual sandwich-to-go or the corner salad bar. But ordering a lunch combination plate at Soba Totto offers a thrilling and generous cascade of striking flavor combinations, smells and textures that will linger in your memory well after filling you up.
The restaurant, on 43rd Street just two blocks from the UN, looks pretty low-key from the street. Walking by, you might not even notice it. On the inside, the décor is spare and modern, heavy on dark wood and comfortable.
Once you’ve wandered past the hostess, you’ll find an interior divided into a warren of intimate rooms, including a bar area with a few little tables, two dining areas and two smaller rooms for private parties. The service is efficient and friendly, and the low noise level, with soft jazz in the background, encourages conversation.
The menu offers a wide variety of choices, from the start of the meal to the finish. Delightful appetite-stimulating appetizers, at $5 to $6, include marinated raw octopus, pickled squid, kimchee and tempura.
Main dishes range from $12 to $20, but the best deal is the combination plates: about 10 are listed on the regular menu and another 10 noted as daily specials. For bargain-hunters, every day the kitchen makes available 20 orders of a $10 special, combining diced sashimi of tuna, salmon, mackerel, shrimp, eel, sea urchin and flying fish roe over flavored rice.
A generous side dish of buckwheat noodles, the house specialty, accompanies every combination plate, including the $10 special. If you like your noodles to be chewy, you can ask for them cold, with a pitcher of dipping sauce. But the hot version is more restorative in winter. You can also order hot or cold noodles as a main course, accompanied by various toppings and with a salad and a few bites of this or that on the side.
A big mug of hot green tea goes perfectly with this meal. Or maybe you’d prefer sake or a martini? Any way you slurp it, Soba Totto is a real treat.
Soba Totto is open Monday through Friday 11:45 am to 2:30 pm and 6 pm to 11 pm. On Saturdays, it is open 6 pm to 11 pm and 5:30 pm to 10:30 pm on Sundays. It is located at 211 E. 43rd Street, between Second and Third Avenues; (212) 557-8200.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.