Top photo credit: Aozora Blue
It is inexplicable, the endless hours I have devoted to searching high and low for that bowl of noodles that really makes it on to my list, and believe me, I am a difficult customer to please. From Bologna's fresh tagliatelli to Shanxi's knife-cut noodles that flew off the dough perched on the chef's shoulder, or the thick creamy tonkatsu ramen (again fresh) in Sapporo on a winter night, if done right the gunginess and intensity of flavour are to me pure bliss. I am a happy camper for the rest of the day when good udon comes my way.
Admittedly, it is rare to find a perfect bowl of noodles and all the more so is it subjective, what is gungy to you might not work for me. Anyhow, for the love of food, we must soldier on. The last time I had a truly satisfying meal was a good year back in the outskirts of Sapporo. It was an udon shop in a nondescript neighbourhood, family-run and with no fancy decor (my type of joint). I cannot stop salivating thinking of that thick bunch of cold udon freshly made that morning or the night before, lightly coated with oil in a massively sturdy ceramic bowl and plunging them into the scallion-wasabi-radish soya dipping sauce. The udon bounced back effortlessly upon each munch. It was brilliant and the amount of locals that jostled to get in confirms it is a rare gem. But that is not the subject of my reminiscing today, the point is I have not come across that same quantum of quality from that udon adventure until last week, Thursday to be precise.
Photo credit: Aozora Blue
We had a two-hour lunch window before our flight out of Osaka. Whilst throughout our two week Kyoto and Osaka ventures we had enjoyed good soba and udon, they were not quite there for me. I had a somewhat weird feeling of things not being fully accomplished yet. Where is that udon or soba that I have been craving?...... (i.e. where is that excellent udon or soba I have been craving?) and ironically, the recommendation came during the last evening from a friend that lives halfway across the planet in Amsterdam. He let us know that Aozora Blue is the place we should contemplate going.
I was somewhat skeptical given that my recent research had not been a great success by my snobby standards, but as soon as I saw their website, albeit all Japanese, instinctively I knew we were onto something special. The udon shop is in the Hommachi area, not far from Umeda or Shinsaibaishi. Walking out of the underground station, various big name companies cluster around one immediately and the food joints appear ready for the office lunch crowd. I believe the St. Regis Hotel is also in the neighbourhood, but getting back to the lunch, Aozora Blue is the shop in the front of a four-story building and it occupies the ground floor. I was immediately refreshed as I walked into a modern yet cosy noodle place, washed with a beige wooden, open-space interior retaining that aesthetic Japanese style, understated yet elegant in its own way.
The noodle machine is displayed behind a huge glass partition in front of the open kitchen where the owner makes fresh udon every day. I had warm udon served up on a bamboo mat (I have always desired my udon or soba to be served on a bamboo mat instead of a square box!) along with a hot pork soup with cabbage for dipping. The signature udon had a brown hue to it. With just one look of it, my heart quickened a beat, and that first bite, was absolutely divine and completely on par with my udon memory in Sapporo. Elastic, fresh, intense. We also had cold wheat udon with tempura that was equally impressive. There was no way that we weren't gonna try the other type of udon which was made of three types of wheat and had the traditional white colour. I wanted to eat it in the basic form, cold with the usual dipping sauce. This udon was also divine but you have to taste it to know it.
Photo credit: Aozora Blue
All in all, what a place! First and foremost, they have excellent udon, a great atmosphere, the owner (skilled udon maker) and his wife (who speaks English) have put some really nice personal touches in the place, such as a subtle engraving of the shop name in the heavy ceramic tea cups, a beautiful leather bound menu, exquisite paper weights on a pile of menu leaflets and little details like the way the copper water pipe is done in the bathroom. They made it to the Micheline guide this year, and while we were there, it was quite crowded in no time as office people started sauntering in. They had just celebrated their first year anniversary when we were there too. I am now indifferent to how long a place has been established as the quality at Aozora Blue is certainly night and day compared to a soba joint in Kyoto that has been around for five hundred years.
Photo credit: Aozora Blue
No doubt given my language restriction and basic photography skills, I have not done the chef justice in how he makes the udon (with stone mortar for grinding the wheat?) and the signature dishes on the menu. Their website provides the story. As we paid by the counter, I saw two ladies happily tucking into their identical bowls of udon, heaps of grated radish (daikon) piled high in the middle and the sauce was twirled around it. Tempted I was to ask the noodle dish name and alas I did not, the best comes as a surprise, does it not?
Website or Tel: 06-4708-8812
Hours: 11:30am - 2:30pm, 5:30pm - 10:30pm