Soba Totto: King of the Midtown Lunch Special

February 25,2013

Endless buckwheat. 

Rating: ◊◊◊½

My job is a bit like firefighting. When there’s work, it comes in tidal waves, filling my weeks with late nights, stress and headaches. And when there isn't work, I’m often left twiddling my thumbs and counting down the seconds to the end of the day. As monotonous as an everyday 9-5 job may seem, I’m actually pretty envious of people who have a predictable work schedule.

However, one perk I enjoy on the slow days is the option to sneak out for a "grander-than-the-everyday-soup-and-salad" lunch. My office is not too far from what I dub the “Triple-S Triumvirate,” a cluster of excellent Japanese restaurants consisting of Sakagura, Soba Totto and Sushi Yasuda. Craving noodles and rice, my coworkers and I decided to visit the least extravagant of the three, Soba Totto.

We were the first ones here!
We managed to beat the lunch rush and arrived just as the restaurant was opening. Not only were we immediately seated, our timely entrance also meant that Soba Totto still had plenty of its 20 limited-serving Bara Chirashi lunch special. Featuring a kaisen-don (chirashi / sashimi rice bowl), fresh side salad, hijiki pickle (black seaweed) and a serving of zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles with dipping sauce), the lunch set is a royal feast with a pauper's price tag of only $10.

Preferring something heartier than raw fish, my coworkers ordered the pork belly don set, gyu-don set and galbi-don set. I, on the other hand, found the lunch special to be too good to pass up.

The slight bitterness of the mesclun worked really well in this salad. 
Soba Totto’s starter salad is a pleasant deviation from the typical offering that accompanies most Japanese meals. Instead of using iceberg lettuce and carrot-ginger dressing (lumpy, orange goo, in my opinion), the salad consists of mesclun mix gently tossed in a light ponzu sauce and topped with spiced, fried soba. The interplay between the vegetal, vinegary leaves and the crunchy noodles primed our stomachs and whet our appetites for the heartier courses to come.

Oh hello, giant lunch! 
Leisurely chatting with my coworkers, I was totally taken by surprise when the waitress delivered my gigantically portioned lunch set to the table. The rice bowl, a meal in its own right, was filled to the brim with chopped tuna, mackerel, salmon and shrimp; tobiko (flying fish roe); and luscious tongues of fresh uni.

The entire ocean in one bowl... plus shredded omelette and avocado! 
I thought I wouldn’t like it, but the small dice of the fish made the kaisen don rather fun to eat. The sweet pop of tobiko, juicy bits of shrimp, buttery uni – each bite highlighted a new flavor, texture and aroma.

My only critique is that I could have done without the mackerel. Oil-rich and pungent, mackerel is a tricky fish to serve even when it’s fresh. Mixed with the other ingredients in the bowl, the mackerel tasted a bit soapy and overwhelmed some of the subtler components.

As for the soba, my lunch included an elephantine mound of noodles that proved to be refreshing and bright despite its intimidating size. Soba Totto uses shredded shiso in addition to chopped scallions, adding a herbaceous, lemony twist to the classic preparation.

I'll eat anything if I have to, but hijiki is definitely one of my no-no foods.
Lastly, I only had a small bite of the hijiki pickle – the fishy seaweed is too strong for my tastes.

Soba Totto is a tasty option for a sit-down lunch break away from the office. The dishes were well prepared and the large portions could have easily fed a team of starving athletes. For me especially, Soba Totto was a steal. Including tax and tip, my food only set me back a grand total of $14.

You might still be wondering how it’s possible for a popular Midtown restaurant to serve a luxurious offering like the Bara Chirashi at such a low price. Frankly, I suspect that the chopped fish in the kaisen-don probably comprises of odd cuts that are high-quality but nonetheless imperfect. Being a staunch believer in nose-to-tail eating, this doesn't bother me at all. In fact, it’s awesome that Soba Totto is able to use these fresh but slightly problematic ingredients to provide diners with a pragmatic and creative meal. 

Inspired by it's sister restaurant Yakitori Totto, Soba Totto also uses the signature kanji meaning "bird."

Soba Totto
211 E 43rd St.
New York, NY

Soba Totto: King of the Midtown Lunch Special

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Monday, February 25, 2013

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