Become an expert on the traditional Japanese drink sake, and be guaranteed one thing – it won’t become repetitive.
There are certain things New York’s drinking sophisticates expect everyone – including tourists – to know. Can’t tell a malbec from a shiraz? You’re a bozo. Indifferent when facing a choice of Bud Light or Bass? What a dolt. Can’t distinguish Johnnie Walker from a single-malt scotch? Such a choob (that’s Scottish slang for a bozo or a dolt).
But if you can’t tell a junmai from a honjozo sake, who can blame you? There’s no culture of sake snobbery in New York, so you won’t be penalised for being an amateur.
In fact, since it’s summer, and sake – the traditionally Japanese drink brewed by fermenting rice – is often chilled, you’ll be amply rewarded.
Punctuating a weekend in town with stops in sake bars has an added bonus: things will not become repetitive. It’s almost impossible to define the typical sake spot in town.
Cozy or vast, cute or corporate, uptown or down, Japanese ex-pat crowd or American crowd. Take your pick, or take them all.
Sake veterans are likely to instruct you to make Sakagura your first stop so you can appreciate the breadth of the sake world. Two hundred varieties, along with tons of tapas-size plates for accompaniment (chilled duck wrapped around scallions, chicken meatball teriyaki and dozens more).
Though its location on East 43rd Street is hardly a secret, the entrance is highly unusual, through a harshly lighted lobby and through some office building that makes you feel as if you’re going down to the laundry room.
There are several tasting flights available, and though the staff is well-trained to explain them, you could just read the descriptions on the menu.
Current examples include the Kacho Gesseki Daiginjo, which “smells fragrant like a beautiful flower lily with a mature taste.”
Or the Yume Wa Masayume Junmai Daiginjo, aged five years (unusual for sake), whose “flavour will make you feel your dreams come true.”
Note: Don’t dream that the US$40 price of the tasting flight will be accidentally left off the check; that one will not come true.
The owner of Sakagura also owns Decibel, which is absolutely nothing like the former establishment except that it’s also in a basement and feels like a total secret even though it is not.
It’s about 100 times more homey, and about a hundredth the size, one of the places that makes the East Village a kind of Japanese hot spot.
You should also try the traditional izakaya called Kasadela, where the bar snacks are tasty, the sake well chilled and well explained, and the service attentive – a sort of extreme friendliness tinged with mild panic. It feels very Japanese, despite the American crowd.
Another East Village option is Satsko, which is, by all appearances, a regular old East Village bar of regulars (many of whose pictures are on the wall).
It just happens to be about sake, with a small menu that can be described as pan-Asian plus guacamole.
It also has a larger spot on the Lower East Side with a bigger menu, and both places serve 30-plus sakes to a 30-plus crowd.
Both serve a house nigori (unfiltered sake) in a generous pour for a bargain US$8 (US$4 from 5 to 8pm). It’s served in a traditional masu box, though you can ask for a wineglass if you’d like to study the cloudiness created by the rice sediment.
The humongous and high-ceilinged yet subtly marked behemoth called En Japanese Brasserie sits like a quiet monster across the street from a block of much more homey-looking West Village businesses.
The New York Times‘s restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave it a mixed review in 2004, giving it one star and noting “scattershot performance” on the food.
But you can give it a test run at the bar, since there’s a bargain US$18 three-sake tasting, served to you in glasses chilled by a bowl of crushed ice, until 7.30pm daily.
It comes with a huge bucket of salty root vegetable chips, and you can order three appetizers for US$15, including the okara, described on the menu as “fibrous byproduct in the making of soy milk” mixed with vegetables. Say what you will about fibrous byproducts, but this one is a winner.
Chibi’s Bar in SoHo wins the award for most unlikely sake bar, serving essentially as the back room for the Dutch owner’s Japanese-influenced European restaurant, the Kitchen Club.
Chibi is the owner’s French bulldog, which, if you miss it in the bar itself, you can meet virtually – photos are all over the website.
This is the restaurant’s second summer with outdoor seating on a quiet block, where a cute little sake carafe goes well with its tempting mixed dumplings (of late, duck and ginger, shrimp and spinach, tofu and chrysanthemum and mushroom).
Sake-haters can try a small but intriguing Belgium-meets-Sapporo beer list.
Donburi-Ya in Midtown has very little Midtown flair, but that makes it genuine and fun and popular among Japanese ex-pats.
The somewhat confusing menu with garish colour photos makes ordering a bit random, and prices change depending on the time, or so it seems.
(One waitress explained, the “Mid Night” menu is actually the post-dinner, not post-midnight menu, which goes into effect at 11pm, but really at 10.40pm since that’s when the last pre-11pm orders must go in. She explained this at 10:43pm.)
But being confused is part of the fun, and the place is not expensive. It also has reasonable prices on shochu, which can be distilled from rice but is definitely not sake. Try both, appreciate the difference and let the rest of the city split hairs over malbec versus shiraz.
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