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So, Soba

March 17, 1994|JONATHAN GOLD

Properly executed, the Japanese soba noodle is one of the loveliest noodles around, a thin, square-cut strand of purest buckwheat a yard long, with the clear pinky-brown color of a mountain range 10 minutes after sunset. Because true soba is made only of buckwheat, which contains little gluten, the noodle is delicate yet crunchy, full of the strong, musky toastiness of the grain and seemingly apt at any second to disintegrate into a little pile of groats. Unfortunately, only one restaurant in the United States serves perfect soba , and that restaurant, Honmura-An, is in Manhattan and charges $17 a bowl.

"You call this kasha ," explained a waiter to a confused New Jersey customer the last time I stepped into Honmura-An. "In Japan, we call it soba ."

If you are in the mood for soba and you are neither in Tokyo nor in New York City, you might go to Mishima, which is a coolly austere place near Westwood, or to Kotohira in Gardena, where you'd really be better off ordering the splendid handmade udon .

Or you might try Yabu down in West L.A., a sleek, busy hangout for UCLA students and the Westside Japanese crowd that combines the standard soba/udon -shop menu with a nearly complete selection of Japanese pub snacks. Yabu is not a restaurant in which you contemplate pure, subtle flavors or the transient beauty of the changing seasons--it's kind of raucous, actually, filled with people sometimes more intent on their sake drinking than on the cuisine--but the food is pretty good and it's difficult to get bored here. Think of Yabu as sort of a Japanese equivalent to T.G.I. Friday's.

Essentially, most regulars order Japanese beer or sake, start off with an appetizer or three--clams steamed in sake, Japanese pickles, fat monkfish liver pate, salty soybeans boiled in their pods--then move on to a bowl of noodles.

There are salads composed of jerky-like broiled salmon skin and greens, of seaweed, of cold slices of beef or albacore tuna, briefly seared on the edges but raw in the middle, arranged like petals around a plate and served with a tart soy dressing. Chunks of cod are marinated in sake lees and broiled to a crisp-edged tenderness, though broiled salted yellowtail cheeks are perhaps overcooked. Steamed shrimp dumplings, little golf balls of crustacean, are fresh and good. There are rich, oily rounds of fried Japanese eggplant in a sticky, almost caramelized miso marinade; tiny salt-fried Japanese peppers; blocks of fried tofu, brown and crisp outside, almost liquid within, that are sprinkled with a few tablespoonsful of thinly shaved flakes of dried bonito that dance in the heat like little sea monkeys.

And if the handmade soba is less than spectacular--the restaurant stretches the buckwheat out with wheat flour and the result is somewhat more resilient than soba really should be--it is at least very good, gamy and chewy, in a powerful broth of soy and dried bonito, garnished to taste with things such as fishcake, Japanese greens, or crunchy bits of batter that have strayed away from frying shrimp in the tempura pot.

Best of all is the zaru soba , plunged straight from a boiling kettle into a basin of ice water to cool, heaped on a bamboo tray, served with a sprinkling of toasted seaweed and a soy-citrus dipping sauce. When you want your noodles straight, no chaser, cold soba is the way to go.

* Yabu 11820 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 473-9757. Open daily, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Beer and wine. Lot parking in rear. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $12-$14; dinner for two, food only, $14-$35.

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