Classic udon gets a gourmet twist in Ikebukuro


Originally published on on February 2010

Photo by Keigo Moriyama

With an emphasis on culinary adventurism over mindless traditionalism, udon restaurant Anpuku offers an imaginative and flavorful menu that has its young, stylish clientele queuing down the block—even in winter. The owner apparently trained under Iron Chef Michiba Rokusaburo in New York, which goes some way to explaining the restaurant’s unorthodox approach to Japanese cuisine.

Located one minute from Ikebukuro Station, on the fringe of the red light district (where noodles are not the only things being slurped), the tiny shop boasts clean, classic black-and-white decor, its walls adorned with kanji brushstrokes and bottles of sake and shochu. Aside from a booth next to the entrance, the layout is pretty cramped—together with a blaring soundtrack of uptempo R&B and insipid light-jazz covers of Madonna songs, plus unrestricted smoking, it’s difficult to linger. And that’s a shame, because the food is worth taking your time over.

The jerky, juicy dried whole squid (¥550) and gooey, milky shirako ponzu (cod milt in citrus sauce, heavy on the spring onion; ¥780) were the perfect match for a flask of hot, dry Kiku-Masamune sake (¥680). By far the highlight of the meal, the spicy deep-fried baby chicken with cheese (¥680) threw a crispy coating of cumin, coriander, garlic, konbu, chili, paprika and black pepper around balls of moist chicken, which were then generously sprinkled with parmesan cheese. Not the usual dried cheese powder—the real thing.

Parmesan also showed up in the carbonara udon (¥1,180), whose rich, creamy sauce featured fresh black pepper, egg and tender pork chunks, resulting in a more authentic carbonara flavor than most of Tokyo’s Italian restaurants ever manage. The noodles were soft but firm, as they were in the beef dark curry udon (¥880). This came served in an imposing oversized bowl—and that’s just the regular size; diners can order a medium or large portion of noodles at no extra cost. The mild soup-like curry had a deep, slightly sweet flavor, though the slices of beef were a little tough. Starting at ¥100, an extensive list of optional udon toppings includes a raw egg, parmesan cheese, a grilled rice cake, tofu and shrimp.

Photo by Keigo Moriyama

Once the sake had run dry, we ordered a glass of house white wine (¥600). The brand is apparently different every time, confusing the young staff; we ended up with a crisp, dry and very drinkable Spanish chardonnay of some description. Soft drinks, incidentally, start at ¥300 and include the usual suspects; draught beer is ¥500.

For dessert, we tried the off-menu soymilk pudding (¥300), served in a tiny wooden bucket and topped with crunchy shaved ice. We could have done without the chill before heading into the cold winter night, but the creamy pudding’s smooth texture was a nice palate cleanser.

While Anpuku has yet to nail the perfect atmosphere, the quality and adventure of the food is more than enough to recommend it. Just try not to stray into a hostess bar on the way home.