Just because you’ve slurped up a zillion bowls of soba at your neighborhood noodle bar, dear reader, do not assume that you know everything there is to know about these nubby brown buckwheat ribbons. Like many Japanese pursuits, such as tea-drinking and swordsmanship, there is more to the topic than meets the eye. Not until you visit a temple of soba such as Tei-An—the Zen-like restaurant that opened three months ago near downtown—will you even begin to comprehend the way of soba.
Tei-An is not a sushi bar, though it serves sushi. It is not a conventional eating place, though it offers familiar dishes for the risk-averse. Rather, it’s a niche restaurant in mainstream trappings. With his most cinematic endeavor yet, Teiichi Sakurai (the man behind local hits Tei Tei Robata, Teppo, and Moosh) wants to hook Dallasites on the proletarian yet aristocratic foodstuff that is his country’s national obsession.
The experience begins at the door, where a hostess ushers you into a lofty space formed by brushed-concrete walls the texture of antique silk. The majority of diners occupy tables in the main dining room, while the true believers gravitate to the semicircular soba bar. Oddly, the noodles are not rolled and cut right there, as you might hope. Instead, the space is filled by a platform bearing a craggy, moss-covered boulder that evokes a compact Japanese rock garden. Lovely, but a bit of a letdown nonetheless.
Determined to get with the program, our group started with a sampler of chilled soba. Our helpful server asked if we wanted her to prepare the bowls—yes, please—so she seized bunches of noodles with her chopsticks and plunged them into four flavored broths. With our own chopsticks, we fished the noodles out and savored tastes ranging from meaty (a special soy sauce) to sweet (pecan).
Turning to something hot, we took a leisurely stroll through soba topped with a poached egg; a refreshing noodle salad with a touch of seaweed and mizuna greens; and an order of spongy, boring buckwheat-kernel-stuffed squid. As the courses ebbed and flowed, we became increasingly attuned to their subtleties: the terrylike texture and nutty sweetness of the noodles, the gentle brininess of the broth, the crisp piquancy of the mizuna. As in a haiku, every syllable counted.
Eventually, though, Westerners that we are, we reverted to type and finished with some crowd-pleasing dishes: a tempura medley of yams, mushrooms, and shishito peppers; soba carbonara, brimming with Parmesan, cream, egg, and bacon (a dead ringer for the Italian classic); and succulent morsels of duck breast cooked on a tabletop griddle by our ever-patient waitress. (The small portion of the last was pricey, at $17.) A dessert of black-sesame mousse—delicious, if a disconcerting industrial gray—finished the excursion.
Outside, someone raised a question: We had tried many dishes, but did we know more than when we walked in? No one could say. The curtain had barely been raised on this seemingly—emphasis on seemingly—simple food. Repeated explorations are in order.