Knockout Noodles: Cha Soba at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge

Knockout Noodles

Reviews of noodle dishes.

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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

The cha soba at Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge makes a strong case for small flavors. Not small in the sense of bland, but quiet—like secrets told through whispers. This bowl of delicate noodles and gossamer broth compels you to tune in, to listen closely to the hushed harmony. After growing accustomed to chasing big, easy flavors—which are certainly satisfying, don't get me wrong—it can be refreshing and reorienting to sit down to some food that gets your attention with a coy glance rather than a barrage of punches.

Cha soba is a variety of Japanese soba noodle made with green-tea powder in addition to the customary blend of buckwheat and conventional wheat flours ("o-cha" is the Japanese word for tea). As the dish's full name suggests, Ai's organic vegetarian cha soba ($9.50) begins with an organic variety of cha soba, which mingle in a broad soup bowl with noodle-like strands of carrots and daikon, paper-thin rings of scallion, cubes of pillowy semi-firm tofu, and shitake mushroom caps.

Although there are many varieties with distinct characteristics, when I think of green tea, a somewhat singular flavor comes to mind—maltiness and minerality; steamed green beans and crushed nuts; maybe a touch of honeyed sweetness way back there. Ai's cha soba noodles betray subtle hints of that unmistakable profile, against a finely textured wheat backbone (the volume of buckwheat in this particular variety seemed low, judging by the lighter flavor and smoother mouthfeel).

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Unlike what you might want out of a bowl of, say, tonkotsu ramen, the kombu broth accompanying Ai's cha soba was light and restrained, perfectly content to play backup to the tender noodles and crisp veg. The mushrooms, on the other hand, were like party crashers at a tea ceremony: impossibly plump, savory, hugely earthy—an inspired and delicious counterpoint to the pervading calm. (If you want to turn up the volume even more, a few shakes of togarashi will do the trick.)

After slurping down all the green tea-tinged goodness, I left Ai feeling refreshed, like my palate had taken a spa day.

Ai Japanese Restaurant & Lounge

358 West Ontario Street, Chicago, IL 60610 (map)
312-335-9888
aichicago.us