Our Japanese reporter investigates the Michelin-recommended udon restaurant and nabs one of their precious thirty meals per day.

Fukuoka sports a whole smorgasbord of tasty local delicacies: spicy pollock roe (mentaiko), offal hot pot (motsu nabe) and of course ramen. Udon noodles, the thick, floury noodles in a mild dashi and soy sauce broth, have also seen a surge in popularity in Fukuoka in recent years, with restaurants serving both springy and squishy varieties of the noodles.

Our Fukuoka-based reporter Masanuki travelled to an udon restaurant called Waranokura Joan (‘Waranokura’ means ‘A Warehouse of Straw’ – evocative!) The restaurant has been officially recognized as a worthy restaurant in the Michelin guide’s ‘Bib Gourmand’ category, and he couldn’t wait to eat his fill of udon from one of their super-limited set meals. Here’s his report on these internationally-acclaimed noodle soups.

● The journey

First, he had to get there. Waranokura Joan is a little way off the beaten path, in that it takes about forty minutes of driving from Fukuoka City’s cosmopolitan Hakata neighborhood to reach. It’s nestled in the verdant forests of Nakagawamachi and makes for a scenic drive or bicycle ride. What’s more, Nakanoshima Park is just a stone’s throw away – a perfect place to spot fireflies by the stream, if you feel like making your excursion into a day trip.

Our reporter did his homework before heading out and checked Waranokura’s website, where he was very impressed by its dramatic opening monologue.

“We nurture countless lives with the blessings of the Earth, and also the universe.”

Wow, what a tagline. With presentation like that, it’s no wonder the Michelin reviewers came away impressed. This is not your average noodle shop.

The restaurant is even further disguised by an old cafe that stands in front of it, the Sanyaso Kobo Shiki Tawaraya. If you cross the small river nearby, you’ve made it… Unless you don’t have a reservation, in which case you may want to jump in the river anyway out of frustration. The restaurant requires reservations, so don’t make the mistake of driving forty minutes without having called ahead and secured a table.

● Now, for the top-level udon experience

Waranokura is a calm, tranquil restaurant with just six counter seats (hence the need for a reservation). Masanuki commented that it was “really exciting, like a secret hideout”. When it came to his order, he didn’t hesitate for a second – he was here for the Bib Gourmand-certified “Joan Special” (1, 000 yen [US$9.20]). He also ordered two of the “Lady of the House’s Handmade Miso Roasted Riceballs” (250 yen). Both come heavily recommended for first-time diners!

▼ Everything on this menu is varying kinds of hot udon, cold udon or sides.

The Joan Special comes with udon noodles (warm or cold) and a set of tofu dumplings, deep-fried burdock root, and pickled eggs.

When Masanuki requested the set with warm noodles the staff produced an appetiser of plain cold udon, saying “We have a feeling you’ll really like this.” This could have unnerved him, had that simple bowl of noodles not looked so darn delicious…

He took a bite.

It’s just a bowl of udon noodles, but the flavor! The cold noodles had a stiff, crunchy feel and you could really taste the wheat flour that went into making them. Masanuki was already ready to rank this place as one of the best without eating even one morsel of the food he’d actually ordered.

When the Joan Special made its grand entrance, he was taken aback by the artistic presentation and powerful, fragrant aroma of the broth. The only thing that could outshine such a great first impression was his first taste of the meal.

The warm udon in this set provided a totally different sensation, chewy and thick and flavorful, with the homemade dashi broth complementing the noodles perfectly. Mixed with kelp, bonito and dried mushroom, the mild flavors of the broth are really something super special.

The deep-fried burdock is similarly delicious. While it tastes great dunked into the udon broth itself, our reporter recommends just enjoying it on the side with a bit of salt.

The tofu dumplings are boiled atop the other ingredients, which lends it the essence of all the food cooked beneath it without the need for sugar or artificial flavouring.

And the rice balls? Phenomenal. Miso is lovingly hand-painted onto a ball of mixed grain and rice before grilling, and the end result really feels like a delicacy from an ancient Japanese fairy tale.

It goes so great with pickles, you won’t want to leave it off your order.

Speaking of pickles, by this point you can tell the pickled eggs were amazing too, right? Of course they were, and Masanuki’s respect for the chef grew even deeper. Is there nothing this man can’t do?

The couple who run the restaurant are friendly and will chat to you about the specifics of your meal, which helps to appreciate each bite to the fullest. Waranokura Joan is well worth the trip even if you’re coming from far away – if this has got your mood on for udon, grab a reservation and hike out there!

Restaurant information
Waranokura Joan / わらの蔵 恕庵
Address: Fukuoka-ken, Chikushi-gun, Nakagawamachi, Ichinose 478-2
Open 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m (30 meals per day, reservation required)
Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Images ©SoraNews24
[ Read in Japanese ]