While I adore French food and wine, on our recent Paris buying trip I found that our typical binge on the super rich left me in a conundrum. After five days filled with dairy and complex sauces, all washed down with a lot of red wine, I found my palate at a stopping point. What to do? Despite my stomach’s limitations I couldn’t possibly waste a meal in Paris! So I decided to think like a Parisian. Certainly the food savvy civilians are not living on French cuisine alone. This thought sparked a memory of walking by a restaurant on our way home the evening before.The bright corner spot, near the Palais Royal, had no sign and a huge line out the door. All I could make out inside was communal tables filled with diners enjoying heaping bowls of Udon. The internet search was on . . . .
Online I soon discovered that the area I was walking through on the border of the 1st and 2nd Arrondissements is the “Little Tokyo” of Paris. And I also learned that there is great debate about which spot serves the city’s best Udon. The restaurant we saw was Kunitoraya, which has recently relocated to this larger spot at 1 rue Villedo. The place has a huge online fan base touting their noodles as tops. The other major contender is Sanukiya: which I will have to reserve for a future trip (and post). And don’t confuse Kunitoraya 1 with it’s fancier sister – called Kunitoraya 2 – down the street at number 5.
The restaurant is open seven days week (well worth noting because finding quality places which are open on Sunday can be vexing). We arrived shortly before 7 and the line was already significant – but it moved quickly and we were seated about 45 minutes later. Standing outside gave us the opportunity to observe the tiny kitchen to glean clues about the food and menu. Once inside the wooden tables are mostly communal – so you are packed in tight. But this proved to be part of the fun – the bright exposed brick room was filled almost exclusively with French and Japanese people. The servers are all Japanese and they speak limited English. However, upon request, they do have an English menu – which was a huge help (without it I would have ordered my Udon bu Boeuf Froide – or cold).
The menu is divided into three sections: Udon in Soup (hot), Upon in Soup (cold) and Over Rice. Basically you choose the topping and pair it with one of these serving styles. The two most popular seem to be the Niku Udon (Boeuf) which pairs tender slices of lean beef with a flavorful beef broth packed with Kunitoraya’s handmade noodles and the Komachi Udon (Crevette et Algues) which places delicately fried shrimp and vegetable tempura atop a bowl filled with seafood stock. We both went the beef route – but had a serious fear of missing out on the tempura. While waiting in line we watched the chefs masterfully filleting and deveining each shrimp prior to hand battering and flash frying them piece by piece. Luckily you can order the Shrimp and Vegetable Tempura as an appetizer- which we did – along with the traditional Japanese Omelette.
The meal began with glasses of ice cold Kirin – a welcome departure from red wine. Hot and cold Sake is also available. The omlette was good (enlivened by shredded radish) but the tempura was stellar. Maybe the best I have ever had. The pieces were light and perfectly crisp – the shrimp unmistakably fresh. Our Udon was also exceptional. The broth tasted richly of beef – and the meat was super tender. The noodles were toothsome and cooked just right. Our portions were huge and yet we felt compelled to finish every drop. Service was brisk and friendly. The waiters speak almost no English but were happy to help navigate us through the evening with lots of mutual smiling and pointing. We left the restaurant satisfyingly full and content that we had enjoyed an authentic Parisian experience. And all of this was to be had for less than $100 for 2 people – a relative bargain in this part of the city.
All in all Kunitoraya was just the change we were looking for. A wonderful palate cleanse which left me with zero angst about wasting a meal or food moment in the city of light. And if you are in Paris for just a few days this would be a great lunch option as it is located just a short blocks from the Louvre and shops along Saint Honore.
1 rue Villedo, 1st.
75001 Paris, France
no reservations; english menu upon request