You know Sushi, Shabu-Shabu, Ramen, maybe even Robata...but do you know Izakaya?
Some of my favorite restaurants are those that call themselves "bars with good food" as opposed to "restaurants." Small wonder, my enchantment with Izakaya. Izakaya are essentially drinking establishments that serve good food. If you've seen the way the salarymen in Tokyo carry on, you know they cannot do it on an empty stomach. Now I understand.
On a recent visit to NYC, between the New York Culinary Experience and the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I had just one night to feed myself. No matter how tired you are, if you're in Manhattan, there is simply no excuse to order room service!
I'd recently seen an article mentioning that one of the best Izakaya spots, one of the most authentic, was just across the street from the much more well-known Sushi Yasuda. We'd been to Yasuda just after my Grandma died, toasted her with specials from Hokkaido and found it a truly authentic and delicious sushi restaurant. We'd not even noticed Sakagura across the street, but then, how could we have?
As one of the articles I'd read warned, Sakagura is in a non-descript office building. Marked only by a single sign out front, you walk into an office building lobby. Even knowing what to expect, it's a little hard in the flourescent glare of the lobby, to believe the stairway you're being directed down by the lobby guard, actually leads to anything other than a parking garage. I asked twice, then headed down the stairs thinking "this can't be..."
Arriving at a recently written up Midtown restaurant on a Saturday night at 915 it might be hard to get a table, but I love dinner at the bar and thought fitting one in wouldn't be too hard. The 20 minute wait was just enough time to snap this shot of the unremarkable basement lobby then peruse the menu. The crowd is probably 2/3 Japanese, some urban hipsters and a few assorted others. The best skirt in the world just walked in and out - Ostrich? - on a very hip young Japanese girl.
This is the view from inside the restaurant out to the basement - see the stairs at the end of the hallway? They lead up to the office building lobby.
Happy noise and a muffled comfortable buzz emanates... once inside, the lack of windows allows you to forget the world outside, a process aided by the more than 200 sakés on the menu.
Small plates and over 200 sakés!
John Gauntner is quoted in the saké menu. The night I was there, they were at the end of a week-long special and a selection of sakés were discounted by 20%.
Agedashi tofu arrives. 3 squares fresh tofu with lightest coating of shaved bonito, grated ginger, daikon broth, tiny mushrooms (baby shiitake?) warm comforting feeling in the belly - a happy start. Forgot to take a picture until I'd eaten almost all of it, not the most beautiful thing to look at. ($7.00)
I sit at the bar, watching a pastry chef working on a "Happy Birthday" plate since I was seated, through most of meal. He must be new. Ultimately the young, petite Japanese woman, obviously his mentor, smiles at is effort takes the rolled up parchment of chocolate and does a perfect job in two tries. They laugh. So glad the birthday guest didn't turn another year waiting!
Sanshoku Nasu Dengaku, silken and luscious - it's spoiled me for any other. (Though this version, see The Great Umami Caper, from Elizabeth Andoh was pretty amazing!) The Sakagura trio includes a topping of egg yolk, one of spinach puree, and a third of Sweet Red Miso. ($12.00)
Saké Daiginjo Yamagata Dewazakura "mountain cherry" was $12 glass w/discount. I enjoyed it with the meal, found it had the right balance of light sweetness to complement the salty food and good body. A nice floral bouquet.
The Chicken You Will Forever Crave
Kara - age - lightly fried, perfectly moist on the inside and just crispy enough on the outside. ($7.00) This is the kara - age you have in mind when you ask for it every other place. Most will disappoint you. A young French couple beside me, in love. He's showing her pictures on his iPhone that he took of her while she slept. Nothing mean or racy, very sweet, young love. They see my kara - age and ask in not-bad English what it is, I answer in worse French "poulet frite." They order it.
The menu also offers a House-made buckwheat soba, which I did not order, having had a perfect meal. It's intriguing to me though, as so few places make buckwheat soba, a notoriously difficult noodle to craft. Desserts include: Truffles, Matcha ice cream, chocolate sea salt ice cream.
The customary greeting which welcomes you here, as in other Japanese restaurants.
All that was missing from this otherwise delicious and authentic experience was the groups of red-faced, chanting Japanese Salarymen! I highly recommend you seek this out on your next mid-town Manhattan visit. Most dishes run $5-10 and my complete meal, three courses, one glass of sake and a box of three truffles to take home ran just around $50. A bargain at Manhattan prices, and a pittance if you compare it to Tokyo!
211 East 43 between 3rd & 2nd Ave.
Open for lunch M-F and dinner seven days.
- For another interesting introduction to Izakaya dining see: Japan Visitor.