Tokyo Sake: Akaoni, Sangenjaya – 赤鬼、三軒茶屋

It’s been a while since I last passed through the noren curtain of the ‘Red Devil’, so indulge me as I tell this tale of Christmas sake sessions past.

Tucked away in a hackneyed backstreet of Sancha lies the sinisterly named Okaoni. It’s shabby exterior belies its status as one of the best sake izakaya in town. In its 29 years of business, Okaoni has developed strong relationships with breweries, particularly small jizake kura, which has resulted in an enviable stock list of well regarded brands and hard to find labels. Their reputation for being one of Tokyo’s best sake specialist izakaya can be attributed to these good relationships, along with an uncompromising approach to how the sake is stored and served, as well as the quality of food it is paired with. The staff are well informed and eager to ‘educate’, though at times their earnestness comes at the cost of warmth and hospitality. 

Its popularity with sake lovers and those in the industry mean that the place is consistently packed 7 days a week, so while walk-in’s are possible, it’s best to book well in advance to secure a seat. 
Despite it being a Sunday, and arriving right on opening (5pm), the place was already packed. Settling into our seats, we set about translating the various menus over an otooshi of pork nimono and yuba.

And this is what everyone comes here for: the sake menu. Stocking over 100 kinds of sake, mostly nama junmai ginjou, they also boast several labels brewed especially for them. This is, of course, just one page of the two page list. The reverse features their selection of premier labels and daiginjou varieties, along with a dozen or so koshu (aged sake) and miscellaneous offerings. The sake has been organised by prefecture, which certainly helps aid the identification process given that no furigana is supplied. The prices you see listed are for a 150ml ko, though half servings are available.

 Namazake all round! With a half dozen or so varieties of Juyondai on the menu, and in stock, I thought it would be churlish not to indulge in the good stuff, so selected the Juyondai Omachi junmai ginjou (十四代 純米吟醸 備前雄町). True to the managers description it had the fruity aromatics and light and refreshing flavour that I have come to associate with Juyondai, grounded by herbaceous notes from the Omachi rice. Jem’s curiosity was peaked by the Akaoni Private Bin Juyondai Junmai ginjou genshu (赤鬼PB十四代純吟原酒). 

You are asked if you wish to order the sashimi morisawase when you make a reservation, so that the kitchen is able to order appropriately from the market. It’s worth making the commitment as pre-ordering ensures a higher grade and wider range of fish than what is listed on the standard menu. Clockwise from the left: kandai (winter bream), akami maguro (red meat tuna), tai no konbujime (snapper cured in konbu), kanburi (winter yellowtail), even fattier kanburi, mizutako (octopus), uni, hirame (flounder) with yuzu, and, peaking out behind the shiso leaf, ika (squid). During the winter, buri (or kan buri, as winter yellowtail is more accurately called), is at its peak fattiness and tastiness. The belly cut is delicious as sashimi…even better than o-toro, in my opinion.

Miso cured tofu infused with yuzu is a wonderful drinking snack. In taste and consistency it has an uncanny resemblence to aged cheese – very moreish. My only gripe is that the serving was ridiculously small. I could’ve happily wolfed down a couple more plates of this stuff.

It took a long time coming, and the portioning was once again stingy, but the buri shioyaki was well worth the wait.

While I stuck to Yamagata with my next round, the Juyondai junmai ginjou made with Aiyama rice,  (十四代 純米吟醸 – 中取り 播州愛山), Jem detoured to Gifu for a very pleasant junmai ginjou from Kozaemon (小左衛門 純米吟醸). In post-dinner research on this brewery I discovered that this small kura, like Juyondai, produce a small yield of sake each year, and limit its distribution to specialist jizake specialist stores and restaurants. According to their very informative English webpage, they are also striving to become organic. I will certainly be looking out for it in the future.

Grilled lotus root: crunchy and packed with umami yumminess.

Despite logging over 400 restaurant reviews in the course of the past year, Jem had still managed to lose weight. He puts his new chiseled appearance down to exercise, Japanese portioning, and a new found appreciation of the humble soy bean. To prove his point, he ordered the yuba kintaku, yuba deep fried in tofu skins. It was my second encounter with this dish, and for me it was bland on bland, which no amount of soy sauce could enliven. Jem, however, declared it delicious.

I suppose that in the lexicon of food porn this would be the, errr.. ‘moneyshot’.

What’s better than daikon oden? Deep fried daikon oden, of course – especially after a few rounds of drinks.

Hallelujah! I thought all of my Christmases had come at once when Jem, filled with the spirit of yuletide – or perhaps it was the spirit of the jizake – treated me to Juyondai’s premium label Soukou  daiginjou tobingakoi (十四代 大吟醸 斗瓶囲い 双虹), made from Yamadanishiki rice, along with the Ryuugetsu special brewed premium junmai daiginjou (十四代 特別純米大吟醸 龍月), also made from the ‘King of rice’, for himself. Currently listed on Rakuten at ¥50,000+ for 1.8L (sold out – natch!), Akaoni serves the Soukou label at the more manageable price of ¥2,000 per 100ml ko, which is downright reasonable when you do the maths. Note that the staff broke out the good (reduced capacity) crockery for the occasion. In a side-by-side comparison they both had the fresh aroma and fruity notes that one expects from daiginjo grade sake, although the Soukou was had a more delicate floral nose. Both were elegantly smooth and rounded in the mouth, but naturally the Ryuugetsu had the more full-bodied, complex flavour that is characteristic of a junmai daiginjou. Sublime.

It’s worth mentioning that Akaoni is completely non-smoking, so that customers can best enjoy the fragrance and taste of the sake. But, while I nipped off outside for a sneaky cigerette, it seems that someone nipped off with my camera . Bloody seppos!

A word of warning: It takes an eternity for food to come out of the kitchen, so be sure to place a new order as each dish is served to avoid stomach rumbling delays. The sauteed octopus, enlivened with a fresh squeeze lemon, was delicious and cooked to perfection. They really do seafood well here…

…Or at least so I thought until we tried this kansou shishamo (dried smelt). Tough and lip-smackingly salty, it was a struggle to get this down.

During the process of ordering our previous round of Juyondai, the manager had generously offered us small tastings of both labels. So while I nursed the last remains of our windfall, Jem proceeded onto the Amabuki junmai ginjou (天吹 純米吟醸), from Saga.

And finally, a dish I that managed the impossible: it rendered me speechless. This sauteed ankimo was the best I have eaten, and has established itself as my benchmark for all future monkfish liver consumption.

Wanting to end on a high, we settled up our (fairly substantial) bill, and escaped into the brisk night before we could inflict any further damage on our wallets, or our livers. But while you may pay a high price for drinking with the Red Devil, memories of an evening of fine sake, (occasionally) good food, and intelligent company are priceless.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy izakaya. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend.

Akaoni
03-3410-9918

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