Sarashina Horii is one of the more theatrical new restaurant spaces to open in Manhattan in a while, so much so that one thinks there might be Japanese dancers prancing before or behind a great wall of washi fiber paper, all beneath a vast vault of bended wood lathe. Its décor apparently bears no resemblance to the original Sarashina Horii in Japan—which dates back to 1789—whose service is in tatami rooms. Sarashina Horii currently has three locations in Tokyo; this is their first restaurant outside Japan.
That ribbed ceiling is supposed to evoke the strands of thin soba noodles that are the restaurant’s signature dish; the wall is actually made by hand of glass covered with washi paper. Behind and underneath the glass, there is a small, tidy rock garden. The tables and chairs are of Japanese minimalist design.
Dramatic as the space is, I should note that some people might find the glare of that fiber wall too bright for comfort, so ask for a table where you will be facing each other, not the wall.
According to the restaurant’s history, “Japan has three main families associated with the art of soba making and Sarashina Horii is known for its unique white soba made using only the very core of the buckwheat seeds. The husk of the seed is polished off the way rice is polished to make sake. This white soba is a much different type of soba and has been made this way by the family since the late 1800s.” They also offer mori soba, made from 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour, and kawari (flavor) with ingredients such as like matcha,black sesame and currently shiso added to the sarashina noodle.
Chef Tsuyoshi Hori (not related to the owner Mr. Horii) offers an extensive menu with many familiar dishes, all beautifully presented, amiably explained and served by a young attractive staff. All dishes come on unique ceramic plates and bowls.
There are sushi and sashimi items along the appetizers, each expressing the individual flavors of the seafood species, which is what distinguishes quality sashimi from the ordinary. Five kinds of sashimi (two pieces each, $46) were a fine starter to stir the appetite, all mounted on ice and festooned with vegetables sticks. The subasushi roll ($19) contains soba. A mushroom salad ($12) contains five varieties— shiitake, eringi, shimejj, maitakeand oyster mushrooms, plus mixed greens and nori—while agadashi is a bowl of fried tofu with mushrooms ($15).
Kakuni ($23) is a slowly simmered, meltingly tender, well-fatted pork belly in a sweet soy sauce reduction that seems a marvelous reward for eating less rich dishes. It comes with thinly sliced ginger and blanched watercress. Tsukune ($23) was a pleasant surprise: a Japanese meatball, plump and topped with finely chopped scallions plus watercress and a quivering lightly poached egg to the side.
There is a tempura section on the menu with carefully fried, lightweight renderings with the assorted vegetables fanned out on the plate ($16). Traditional uni nori maki ($39) is made with pleasingly mild sea urchin.
Most of these dishes are variants on classic Japanese cuisine, but people will go to Sarashina Horii for the noodles, just as one would for the pasta at an Italian restaurant. As noted, the white soba noodles here are the house specialty and they come ice cold in a lovely cinnamon-red lacquered box. They did have a pleasant texture, but they must be an acquired taste, for on their own they are quite bland and need the dipping sauces and condiments of wasabi that come with it. I found the mori soba more flavorful on its own, and others come with a rich lobster ($42), a walnut sauce ($20) and, one of the most popular, with duck and leeks ($32).
The desserts are as pretty as everything else at Sarashina Horii, including a hojicha tea blancmange ($10) and a matcha tiramisù.
As with any Japanese restaurant of this stripe, the sake and Japanese whiskey list is formidable and the wine and beer lists cover every base. The swanky cocktail bar up front could be a set for an Indiana Jones movie.
There really isn’t anything quite like Sarashina Horii in New York, or, perhaps, outside of Japan. For its design alone it stands in contrast to all those extravagant Asian nightclubs like Tao and Buddakan. If this outpost is the first sign of an inspired style to come, its competitors will have both a highly refined template to copy and a high culinary standard to meet.
45 East 20th Street
Sarashina Horii is open Mon-Thurs. for dinner; Fri. Sat. & Sun. from noon.