Sunday, July 21, 2024

Cold soba with an umami dipping sauce at Sugidama Soba & Izakaya in Somerville’s Davis Square. (Photo: Tom Meek)

I’m not sure it’s possible to walk two blocks here and not find a ramen shop. Udon’s a little harder to come by, but not that hard. Soba, on the other hand, not so much, and not long ago a soba go-to, the Sugidama Soba & Izakaya nestled behind Redbones in Davis Square, went dark because its landlord was looking to build out and remodel. The eatery’s idea was a quick relocation of its spare but festive space that lived up to the “izakaya” tag – a Japanese tavern for small bites and late-night drinking. That turned into a nearly one-year hiatus, during which I got several emails from friends asking where they could find fresh, housemade soba buckwheat-flour noodles in Camberville. I scratched my head each time and said I really didn’t know, because Sugidama was it. 

For those desperately seeking soba, Sugidama is back in a locale not too far from its old digs – just farther down Elm Street, in the old Snappy Kitchen space next to the Goodwill store. The new space is similarly spare and inviting, though it’s hard to say it holds the same, warm, woody charm, and the menu and food quality is pretty much the same. So if you dug Sugidama before, you’re set for reentry; if you’ve never been, you’re in for a taste bud awakening. Besides the soba offerings that you can get hot or cold, the menu boasts yakitori (Japanese barbecue), the requisite sushi and sashimi, donburi bowls and appetizers such as a monkfish liver pate or tasty dragon ball, a round green mound of avocado, seaweed salad and tuna. The food presentation is aesthetically appealing, especially the sushi plates.

On the current specials menu, I’ll point you to the black dragon maki roll of sweet potato tempura topped with tuna and caviar. It’s nothing too different, but a winning combo that will make you ask for another. Another fun limited special is the lightly fried and buttery butterfly shrimp. And if you’re a fan of buttery (who isn’t?), on the yakitori side of the house you can get tender, thinly sliced scallops with a generous drizzle of soy butter sauce. A rich, tender enoki mushroom comes the same way, except instead of being served in a scallop shell it’s in a foil fold, grilled inside with plenty of of that soy butter. I was sad to see the yakitori menu now missing a chicken meatball skewer with quail egg yolk, but you can still get the sake-marinated lamb chops with yakitori sauce and classic chicken thigh.

From the sushi and sashimi offerings at Sugidama. (Photo: Tom Meek)

About those donburi bowls: If you like eel and eel barbecue sauce, and I do, the unagi donburi bowl is a soul-warming win; the chicken yakitori bowl is an ample feast of tender, grilled chicken kabobs; and the chirashi bowl – my choice – is super solid, with generous chunks of salmon, tuna and yellowtail sashimi atop a mound of moist, fluffy rice with tamago (a Japanese omelette). The fish is always silky and fresh, and if you hit up Sugidama for lunch your chirashi bowl will come with miso soup and a side of soba – cold or warm, your choice. 

But we’re talking soba, right? The soba comes cold with a flavorful room-temperature umami dipping sauce or hot, which is more like ramen in a hot bonito broth. No matter which you get, the tannish brown noodles are supple and light yet have a satiating meatiness to them. Most all variations of toppings and blends can come cold or hot, but some – including the pork kimchi, shrimp tempura or duck breast – feel better hot, vs. the nori (seaweed) or tofu and mountain-fresh vegetable offerings that work well cold. For the cold version, noodles come on a bamboo mat atop a pitted plate known as soba strainer. From there you dip them into that umami sauce or, if you’re feeling lazy, do a pour-over. I think I prefer the cold because of the ritualistic aspect to it, but come winter I’m sure that will change.

As to the izakaya vibe,  I’m always dialing back to a few Murakami stories in my head when I walk into Sugidama or Bosso Ramen in Harvard Square. Sugidama has a small, narrow bar, a nice collection of clean sakes and Japanese whiskeys (can I suggest the classic Japanese highball, a refreshing spritz of Japanese whiskey and soda) and hokey Japanese melodramas and hyperbolic auctioneers playing on the TV. It adds nice cultural kitsch to your fine soba indulgence. 

Sugidama Soba & Izakaya, 234 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville 

Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.