Teiichi Sakurai prepared a special soba zukushi menu for 16 guests at the chef's counter.

Teiichi Sakurai prepared a special soba zukushi menu for 16 guests at the chef's counter.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

It was, most likely, a first in the United States: Last Wednesday night, Teiichi Sakurai of Tei-An, one of only a handful of soba masters in the United States, prepared a poetic, multicourse menu that explored buckwheat in all its dimensions, including pairing each course with a drink that was also based on the sturdy grain.

The menu, called soba zukushi fuyu, or winter soba tasting menu, is traditional in soba houses throughout Japan, but as far as we know, has never before been offered to the public in the U.S. As part of The Dallas Morning News'  EatDrinkInsider event series, Sakurai offered to create his version of the meal for 16 diners gathered at the counter of his Arts District restaurant. 

"After 10 years of introducing soba to Dallas, it was the right time to do this," said Sakurai, who is as dedicated to bringing Japanese culture to Dallas as he is to its cuisine. "This menu is fun for a chef to do. It's challenging, and it introduces the passion for the ingredient and for the seasons."

The first course, from left: dashi with fried soba dumpling, tatami iwashi with lamb prosciutto and fresh ginseng, cold soba tofu, and, slightly hidden, a soba chip topped with caviar.

The first course, from left: dashi with fried soba dumpling, tatami iwashi with lamb prosciutto and fresh ginseng, cold soba tofu, and, slightly hidden, a soba chip topped with caviar.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

Sakurai began with four appetizers, a microcosm of the menu to come. Tatami iwashi, an old school bar snack of baby sardines fried into a lacy crisp, was shaped like a peaked roof and draped with a rosy slice of lamb pastrami and quick-fried fresh ginseng, the medicinal root slightly sweet with a bitter finish and popping with the juiciness of a braised carrot. Beside it, a tiny cup of gentle ichiban dashi, the "mother broth" made from bonito flakes and konbu, held a fried dumpling made of soft tofu made from soba rather than soy, its surface roughly flecked like panko and embellished with a salted cherry blossom. A second version of soba tofu was served cold, a pure white slice with a chewy, almost bouncy texture. The last appetizer played with idea of caviar and buckwheat blini, with a crisp soba chip holding a dab of osetra caviar.

Sashimi featured soba-marinated Scottish salmon, front right, flecked with soba grains.

Sashimi featured soba-marinated Scottish salmon, front right, flecked with soba grains.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

The second course of sashimi included needlefish from Japan and uni from Canada, but the star of the dish was soba-marinated Scottish salmon. Cut into cubes and marinated for a day in shio koji and soba, it had a liquid silkiness touched with a nutty flavor.

Cod coated with buckwheat tea was served with steamed baby turnips.

Cod coated with buckwheat tea was served with steamed baby turnips.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

Yakimono, or the grilled course, was a snowy chunk of Hokkaido cod under a crisp, sienna-colored crust made with dattan soba, the type of buckwheat used for soba tea. It made a nubbly and earthy counterpoint to the fish, which was marinated in sake, salt and a little sugar.

Miyazaki beef shabu shabu, with pecan dipping sauce, baby nameko mushroom and seri, a Japanese freshwater green. 

Miyazaki beef shabu shabu, with pecan dipping sauce, baby nameko mushroom and seri, a Japanese freshwater green. 

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

A shabu shabu course featured thin slices of miyazaki beef, nearly white with marbling and boasting pedigree papers that were passed around the bar. Sakurai borrowed a technique usually used on summer eel and coated each slice with a nearly invisible layer of sarashina — an ultrafine soba flour made from only the core of the grain. It was served with a touch of Texas, a dipping sauce made with pecans instead of the traditional walnuts, and a touch of Japan, a beguiling Japanese green called seri that tasted like a cross between parsley, cilantro and purslane. "It grows only in very clean freshwater streams," Sakurai said. "No one has tasted this before."

The dinner finished with Sakurai's renowned soba noodles, of course, and his signature dessert of soba ice cream topped with kinako, the roasted soybean powder, and kuromitsu, the Okinawan black sugar.

An old-fashioned made with soba-infused whisky and chocolate and walnut bitters. 

An old-fashioned made with soba-infused whisky and chocolate and walnut bitters. 

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

The whole way, Sakurai's creativity was enhanced with pairings by Best Ranglek, Tei-An's general manager, including Tantamount stout, an eye-opening beer made with soba from Evasion Brewing in McMinnville, Ore. Two different drinks explored the soba version of Japanese shochu: The first, a cold, contemporary tropical punch made with Towari soba shochu, St. Germain, citrus fruits and tonic water, the second a classic mug of the spirit mixed with hot water, which opened up its complex, savory flavors. Other drinks were a spin on an old-fashioned, made with Nikka Coffey Grain Whisky infused with soba, and my favorite: a perfect sidecar, with fragrant toasted soba on the rim instead of the usual sugar.

Chef Teiichi Sakurai prepares the sashimi course.

Chef Teiichi Sakurai prepares the sashimi course.

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

It was a fascinating meal, imprinted with the nuances of a single ingredient, but even more, with the virtuosity of Sakurai and perhaps a preview of dishes to come on the Tei-An menu.

"I have a big library of recipes in my head," Sakurai said. "So possibly, they will be on the menu in the future. Things come up naturally."

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