Category Archives: izakaya

Posts about izakaya in Tokyo, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

Izakaya Dining Worthy of a Shiny Star: Sakanaya Ajisen 肴や味泉

The spirited sake of summer was followed by a double whammy of autumnal hiyaoroshi and fully matured sake releases – what a heady few months it’s been. All my diligent ‘research’ has come at the expense of creative output, so forgive me while I play catch up with some long overdue posts.

Given my particular fondness for shitamachi neighbourhoods, it’s a wonder I don’t venture out to Tsukishima more often. Having escaped damage in both the Great Kanto Earthquake and blanket bombing of the Great Tokyo Air Raids, the back streets still retain much of their yesteryear charm. These days, what draws people here is the abundance of monjayaki shops which line Nishinaka-dori – it is so popular there is even a Monjayaki Information Centre to help you navigate the 75 specialist restaurants in the area. But there would be none of that sloppy, teppan grilled pancake on the menu tonight. What brought me here was the promise of top-class food and sake at the counter of local institution Ajisen.

Ajisen

By the time we arrived for our 7pm booking the room was already packed with white-shirted salarymen, whose flushed cheeks and akimbo ties suggested their end of the week revelries had already begun in earnest. The aesthetic is quintessential izakaya: cluttered tables and slightly worn furnishings enclosed by walls liberally plastered with calligraphied squares of yellowing parchment promoting the day’s specials; the air hums with animated conversations and the frequent clanking of drinking vessels. But that’s where the similarity to a standard izakaya ends. What keeps the crowds coming is Ajisen’s reputation for excellent food – a rarity for izakayas, where food tends to play a secondary role to the liquid libations. In fact, it’s so renowned for the quality of its fare, that it forced the Michelin inspectors to put down their polished cutlery for an evening and deign the shop with a visit. The result was a bright shiny star – making it one of only three izakaya to be recognised by the red guide.

Ajisen otooshi

Otsukaresama deshita!” Warmly greeted by our hostess, and squashed into our seats at the counter, our night began with the usual suspects: a nama Yebisu beer and otooshi.

From our seats at the counter we could peer into the kitchen where chef and owner Shinichi Araki was busily expediting and preparing the food. As he worked for years in a fish market, and given the shops close proximity to Tsukiji, it’s no surprise that the seafood here is extraordinarily good. On any given day there are around a dozen different fish on offer; each available in a variety of preparations: sashimi, grilled, simmered. A handwritten menu lists their perennial offerings, but you would be best advised to look to the walls for the seasonal specials. In addition to seafood, there are also a variety of proteins and vegetable dishes; all listed with the area they were sourced from.

Ajisen sake

But what my eyes were immediately drawn to was the shelf of sake bottles above the counter, which was a veritable who’s who of well-regarded jizake labels. (They serve shochu too, if that’s what floats your boat.)

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If you see Juyondai on the menu, order it. And if you see it one the menu at Ajisen, order it immediately, as it’s no doubt a hard to find variety and it’s bound to sell out fast. The evening’s offering was the Juyondai “Ginsen” Ginjō Namazume (Banshu Yamada Nishiki 50%), Takagi Shuzō – Yamagata. 十四代 「吟撰」吟醸 生詰* (播州山田錦 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県. Big, upfront ginka fragrance, complemented by the refined, sweet rice flavour and round texture that is so quintessentially Juyondai. All of the elements harmonised to create a perfectly balanced whole. Hashtag bliss.

*Sake that has been bottled as unpasteurized sake. It is pasteurised once for stability after being bottled. It’s similar to hiyaoroshi sake, which is pasteurised once after brewing, but foregoes a second pasteurisation after being bottled.

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Food takes a while here, so to tide us over we made do with a warm bowl of salty edamame…

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…and longing glances of our neighbour’s enormous iwagaki (wild rock oyster, from Ehime).

Friday night and a full-house, the kitchen was slammed. While Araki-san was battling his way through the fish orders, his assistant was diligently pumping out dishes from the fryer. So in spite of ordering in a logical sequence: sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish and fried food to finish, our meal was served in a slightly hackneyed order – a little frustrating when you’re attempting to order sake to match each course, but understandable given the pressure on the small kitchen.

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A substantially portion of handmade satsuma-age was first to arrive. Made with pounded whiting and studded with vegetables and pinenuts, this tasty fish cake was standard izakaya fare elevated to another level.

The delicate ginjō was a little overwhelmed by the savoury flavour of the satsuma-age, so I hurriedly ordered a tokkuri of Orouku’s Takemichi Junmaiginjō Muroka Nama Genshu (Organic Higashi Izumo-cho grown Yamada-Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 王禄 丈径 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

It’s dignified, muscular and tight bodied with an abstruse & complex flavour. Named after its toji, Ishihara Takemichi, this sake exemplifies his uncompromising brewing philosophy: he only brews junmai sake made from chemical free, locally grown rice, bottled from single tanks. None of Orouku’s sake is blended, filtered, diluted or pasteurised. The result is sake with plenty of personality and vivid impact – making it a favourite of the nation’s junmai fanatics.
(I forgot to document our bottle, so here is a shot of the back label I pulled from the net.)

On first sip, my companion bellowed, “Umai!” and went about silently devouring both it and the satsuma-age. Another convert to the joys of this stellar Shimane kura.

Ajisen croquette

Next, crispy golden orbs of potato croquette. Light and fluffy, they were the antithesis of the stodgy stomach liners that one usually encounters at izakaya.

Just as I was about to send out a search party, the sashimi arrived on a wave of apologies. Any grumbles about timing were forgotten as I took in the glorious selection before us. Clockwise from top left: Tairagai (Aichi), hon-maguro chūtoro (Sannicho-oki, Tottori), shime-saba (Tokyo), shimeaji (Tokyo), murasaki uni (Rebu Island, Hokkaido), magogarei, tai (both from Awaji Island, in the Seto Inland Sea), with suzuki (sea bass) front middle, and a pretty pink kinmedai (both from Choshi, Chiba) in the rear. All were of exceptional quality, but the curing of the shime-saba was particularly memorable, and the soft, creamy, richly flavoured murasaki uni was without a doubt the best I’ve had at an izakaya.

I headed south with my next sake: Azumaichi Junmai Ginjō (Yamada Nishiki 49%), Gochōda Shuzō – Saga. 東一 純米吟醸 (山田錦 49%), 五町田酒造 – 佐賀県.

Mild aromatics with a smooth, clean mouthfeel, and the sweet, rich flavour of Yamada Nishiki rice. Its light expression & balanced acidity made it a perfect pairing to the sashimi.

For my companion, I ordered another offering from Orouku: “Kei” Junmai Ginjō Namazume (Higashi-Izumo grown Yamada Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 渓 純米吟醸 生詰 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

Aptly named “Mountain Stream”, its soft flavour travels across the palate in a fresh, undulating wave. Light and clean with a subtle sweetness and gentle umami notes – it’s an elegant expression of Orouku’s distinctive style.

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An order of anago is de rigeur at Ajisen – it’s what they are most famous for. This nutritious freshwater eel is a summer staple in Japan. When eaten during the hottest days of summer, it’s believed to invigorate ones constitution and stave off natsubate – crippling summer fatigue. We opted for the shioyaki over the richer mushi-anago, to better enjoy the flavour of the wild Matsuyama caught eel that Araki-san uses – “It’s the best you can get”, he says.  Grilled to perfection, the texture of the meat was delicate and buttery. Eel of this quality requires very little embellishment – just a small dab of wasabi to offset its rich fatty flavour. The perfect stamina reviver for a hot Tokyo night.

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By now pressure on the kitchen had eased and I was able to strike up a conversation with the master as he worked away at this station.

Charming and easy to engage, he generously answered our questions about the menu. When he gleaned my interest in sake, his face creased into a warm grin and he disappeared to the “other” sake fridge to retrieve an offering he thought would suit me. And he was spot on:

Amanoto Junmaiginjō Natsuda Fuyuzou Akita Komachi Once Pasteurised (Akita Komachi 40%), Asamai Shuzō – Akita. 天の戸 純米大吟醸 夏田冬蔵 酒こまち 一回火入れ (秋田酒こまち40%), 浅舞酒造 – 秋田県

The softness and grace of this sake was just heavenly – perhaps unsurprising given it’s made by a kura called “Heaven’s Door”. Its refreshing and subtle fruity fragrance was followed through in the delicate sweet flavour. Light and sweet on first approach with a bright acidity and faint bitterness coming later. A sweet rice and umami swells across the palate before ends with a smooth, quiet finish. A most elegant and refined sake.

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While sakana (魚) means fish in Japanese, the “sakana” (肴) in the name actually means appetisers; the kind of flavour packed small plates that drive your thirst on a night out drinking. We went for an izakaya classic: morokyu – miso fermented barley served with chilled, decoratively cut cucumber & eschalot.

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My fondness for tofu misozuke is well documented on this blog. I don’t know what happens during the fermentation process, but the funky, cheese-like result is a beautiful thing. I adore it. Ajisen’s was deliciously creamy and packed with umami flavour.

Had we not been so heat zapped we would have finished with an onigiri, tsukemono and akamiso soup – the later I’ve heard is amazingly good. Oh well, next time.

Our sake glasses emptied, we sat back in the warm afterglow of a great meal. Ajisen’s reputation is well-earned. The quality of the food and sake are exemplary; the atmosphere convivial; and the service is warm & attentive… albeit at times a little slow. As we reluctantly bid our farewells, I found myself wondering for the second time that evening, “Why don’t I come here more often?”

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Tokyo Sake: Natsuzake Tasting @ Honoka

When the temperate days of spring turn to the humid monsoon days of early summer, brewers around the country wrap up production for the year and enjoy a well deserved break. By now, the first batches of new spring sake have already been released, and the rest is settling & aging in tanks, so the market goes a bit quiet as everyone waits expectantly for the release of the year’s fully matured sake in October. But fear not, there is still plenty of great sake to look forward to during the summer season. It’s around this of year that pretty bottles of lively and intensely fruity summer namazake begin to appear in the refrigerators of good sakaya. These sake tend to be light, refreshing and, due to lower alcohol levels, eminently quaffable – perfect for quelling the meanest summer thirst.

Keen to keep abreast with the seasonal offerings, I made a reservation at my preferred venue for a serious kikizake: Honoka. The beauty of this place is not just the owner’s outstanding selection, meticulously detailed sake menu and inspired recommendations; it’s also the ability to order a broad range of sake in half-sized tasting glasses – thus avoiding any irreparable damage to one’s wallet or constitution.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Before any visit I make sure to first pop into Kagataya, the specialist jizake (small kura production) sakaya, in nearby Nishi-Koyama, to glean information on the latest releases. Currently, Kagataya are devoting 4 full fridges to natsu namazake releases – it really is a glory to behold. But you need to get in quick, especially with the more desirable brands, as limited production numbers means that once they have sold their stock – that’s it.

So after a quick perusal and chat with the friendly staff, I made a mental note of labels I wanted to try, gathered up my purchase (Kameizumi’s Junmaiginjou Namazake CEL-24) and made haste to my awaiting seat at Honoka.This evening I would be supping in the fine company of the erudite Asomaniac along with fellow contributor to Chow’s Japan boards, Ninisix – the Yoda of sushi. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about introducing my cherished Honoka to diners of such refined tastes, but after one look at the four page sake menu, Asomaniacs eyes lit up with boyish glee. Phew!

With a sashimi-moriawase already pre-ordered, food and the daily specials were momentarily ignored so that we could get on with the most pressing issue at hand: deciding what to drink. Sake can be ordered by tokkuri (¥850), 120cc glass (¥550), 90cc glass (¥450), or a 60cc tasting glass (¥300). There are also six sets of tasting flights (¥850): an osusume set; karaguchi, full-bodied and sharp tasting sets; a flight focusing on a particular rice variety; and the kimagure set which lets you select your own choice of three from the menu. Having quite particular preferences, we took full advantage of the latter option.

Our first flight was a comparison of two ‘wine like’ sakes and – as he knows my preferences better than anyone – a recommendation from Takisawa-san.

(Left) Sogga Pere et Fils “Neuf” Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Miyama 59%) – Nagano.
ソガペールエフィス 「NEUF」純米吟醸 生原酒 (美山錦 59%).

Brewed by Obuse Winery, the Sogga is named after the #9 yeast that gives it its upfront and fruity bouquet. Although its flavour is initially fairly sweet, this is balanced out by a big wallop of acidity (酸度 2.5!!!) and some gentle astringency. Crisp, fruity, and dry in the finish – this sake doesn’t just look like white wine, it thinks it’s white wine too!

(Middle) Hououbiden “Wine Cell” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nakazume (A-Grade Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Tochigi.
鳳凰美田『WINE CELL』純米吟醸酒 無濾過生詰 (特A 山田錦 55%).

Superb! The crisp ginka fragrance that emanates from the glass comes courteous of the French wine yeast used during fermentation. It’s a wonderfully bright and finely textured sake with a seemly effervescent mouth feel. They’ve got the balance of sweetness and acidity spot on here – a much more successful attempt at a white wine-like sake than the Sogga.

(Right) Ikki Junmaiginjou Namashu Jikakumi (Gohyakumangoku 55% – kouji: Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
一喜 純米吟醸生酒 直汲み (五百万石 55% – 米麹: 山田錦 55%).

Takisawa-san’s pick, and Asomaniac’s favourite of the set. I haven’t paid much attention to sake from Chiba, but this sub-label of Kinoenemasamune has certainly inspired me to try more. It has the youthful and fruity flavour one would expect from a summer namazake, but with much more finesse than many of its brash counterparts.

On a recent visit I was fortunate enough to try a rare release from Tabika – so rare in fact that it was only distributed to two restaurants. I was given strict instructions that it was not to be photographed or even blogged about, but Takisawa-san allowed me to snap a photo as a memento, which I will share here – albeit heavy censored. Sadly, it was already sold out, so Takisawa-san suggested a tasting of three sake from the same brewer: Hoshigawa Shuzo, in Mie.

(L) Tabika Omachi Junmaiginjou Muroka (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 雄町純米吟醸 無濾過 (雄町 50%).

The Tabika Omachi was definitely the stand out for me, and reaffirms my opinion that Omachi is the true king of sake rice.

(M) Soushun Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nakadori Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
早春 特別純米 無濾過 中取り 生原酒 (美山錦 55%).

(R) Tabika Natsunama Junmaiginjou Nakadori Fukuroshibori (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 夏生 純米吟醸 中取り袋搾り 無濾過生原酒 (雄町 50%).

Fukuroshibori is the labour intensive method of pressing sake in bags rather than using machinery. The resulting sake is referred to as “shizukuzake“.

Nakadori: The middle part of the pressing of a batch of sake. This usually implies using a fune (traditional box press) rather than a machine. Nakadori (also known as nakakumi) is considered the most prized portion of pressed sake.

(L) Orouku Choukaraguchi Jikakumi Muroka Nama Genshu (Kakemai: Yamada Nishiki – Kouji: Gohyakumangoku 60%) – Shimane.
王禄 超辛純米 直汲 無濾過生原酒(掛米:富山-五百万石 – 米麹:兵庫-山田錦 60%).

I’m a big fan of this Shimane label, so its arrival was preceded by much effusive praise from me. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to impress my companions I failed to note that I had ordered the extra dry, unfiltered and undiluted junmai – a complete mismatch to the refined Nabeshima. This gusty little Orouku would have been best sampled alongside the drier sake of the next round.

(M) Shinomine “Rokumaru” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Oyama Nishiki 60%) – Nara.
篠峯「ろくまる」純米吟醸 無濾過 生酒 (雄山錦 60%).

This was my first experience of Oyama Nishiki, a new sakamai variety bred from a cross between “Hidahomare” and “Akita-sake No.33″. It was developed in 1986 at the Toyama Agricultural Research Center to create a variety of early maturing sake rice with a large white (starch) core – the ideal characteristics of rice used to create daiginjou grade sake.

(R) Nabeshima Junmaiginjou “Passion Label” Akaiwa Omachi Namashu (Omachi 50%) – Saga.
鍋島 純米吟醸 赤磐雄町 生酒 (雄町 50%).

“Passion Label” is a fitting epithet for this sublime Nabeshima sake. It’s a kura can do little wrong in my opinion. The union of the toji Naoki Iimori’s craftmanship and Omachi rice is truly a match made in sake heaven.

(L) Hitakami “Yasuke” Houjunkaraguchi Junmaiginjou (Miyagi Kuranohana 50%) – Miyagi.
日高見 弥助芳醇辛口純米吟醸 (宮城県産 蔵の華 50%).

This sake was developed over the course of three years in order to exactly match the subtle flavours of sushi. It’s clean, dry taste and subtle fragrance are designed specifically to complement delicate sweet white meat, shrimp, squid, and shellfish.

There is a cute story behind its name: from the Meiji to early Showa era, sushi was referred to as yasuke in the world of the geisha. Its roots go back to performances of the popular kabuki drama “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” (義経千本桜). Defeated in the Genpei battle, one of the heroes of the story, a Taira General called Koremori, escaped and fled to take settler in a Tsurube shop where we worked under the alias “Yasuke.” As geisha were connoisseurs of both kabuki and in jokes, it became common practice to refer to sushi as yasuke in the floating world.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – Aichi.
醸し人九平次 純米吟醸 (雄町 50%).

A celebration of nashi pear notes, crisp acidity, anchored by the soft umami flavour of Omachi rice, this is an accomplished and immensely satisfying drop. Many will be familiar with their wildly popular “Eau du Desir” label, also a junmaiginjou with a seimaibuai of 50%, which is made with Yamada Nishiki. While the Omachi version lacks the soft, round texture of its coveted sibling, I personally find it just as desirable.

(R) Shirataki “Doshin” +15 Junmai Binhiire (Menkoina 65%) – Akita.
白瀑「ど辛」+15 純米酒 瓶火入(めんこいな錦 65%).

As it says in the name, this Akita sake delivers a big “thump”. Super dry and plenty of impact, it’s definitely one for the “I only drink karaguchi” fan club. It’s intense, but in no way rough, and bottle pasteurisation has probably helped to soften the blow of its punchy flavour. Crisp, refreshing with the mellow flavour of rice in the background – a great sake to pair with food.

(L) Ippakusuisei Arabashiri Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 50%) – Akita.
一白水成 あらばしり 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (美山錦 50% -秋田県酵母).

Ippakusuisei is a label created 7 years ago by the young president, and 16th generation head of Fukurokuju Shuzo, Koei Watanabe. It has quickly earned popularity for its distinctively crisp, clean and aromatic sake.

The “arabashiri” in the name of this jungin means the “rough first run” – the first 1/3 of a batch of sake that seeps out of a fune press before any pressure has been applied. This first trickle is then collected, bottled – without any dilution or pasteurisation – and immediately sent out to market as arabashiri sake. As is characteristic of this style, the Ippakusuisei had a slightly cloudy appearance, an upfront fragrance and a lively, assertive flavour. While I’ve enjoyed Ippakusuisei’s sake on many occasions, I was not so enamoured with this one: too rough and astringent for my tastes.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – The same as above.

(L) Kameizumi Junmaiginjou CEL-24 Nama Genshu (Hattan Nishiki 50%) – Kochi.
亀泉 純米吟醸 生原酒 CEL-24 (八反錦 50%).

I’ve affectionately dubbed this the “flower bomb”. CEL-24 is one crazy, mixed up Franken-yeast, but boy does it create smile inducing aromas. This Kameizumi jungin is an explosion of sweet florals, pear and ripe melon – lush, vivacious and enormously fun to drink.

The CEL-24 yeast which gives the sake its over the top fragrance, was developed by the Kochi Prefecture Industrial Centre. The features of this idiosyncratic little yeast are its exaggerated fragrance and high acidity. One look at its -12 nihonshudo will have ardent karaguchi lovers aghast – but don’t let the saccharine scent fool you – its sweetness is a bit of olfactory trickery. The high acidity levels even out the flavour into a pleasant balance of sweet and sour. Of course, at first your brain will register sweetness, but this dissipates as the full-bodied flavour spreads across your palate, leaving an apple cider-like acidity in its wake.

Many friends have sneered in derision at my favourite little flower bomb, but oh how their tune changes after the first sip. Curled lips evaporate into childish grins, and I see them struggling to reconcile how something so seemly wrong could be oh so right. Quite frankly only a completely joyless person would fail to be charmed by this quirky little sake.

There was, of course, food involved in our night at Honoka, but you can read my previous review for more details. It suffices to say that it was good: the garlic miso-yaki being a highlight; the uni – a monumental fail. Sadly, our three hour seating was over all too soon. We left considerably more wobbly than we arrived, but elated and determined to find an excuse to return. So while I still haven’t quite worked out what my excuse is, I’ve made a booking for next week, nonetheless.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a tiny, busy izakaya, that seats only 8 people at the counter. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend…or booking elsewhere.

Tokyo Sake: Jizake @ Shin, Musashi-Koyama – 酒彩 SHIN, 武蔵小山

My reckless pursuit of good food and sake has led me on a merry dance around Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. So it never ceases to amaze me that my best discoveries are located a stone’s throw from home, in the Koyama area of Meguro. Sake Dining Honoka is still my top choice of specialist sake izakaya, and Kagataya’s sake selection has yet to be usurped by another bottle store. And now I can add Shin to my list of preferred sake destinations.

Located a short distance from Musashi-Koyama station, Shin doesn’t offer much in the looks department, but it sure makes up for its fugliness with great food and interesting sake at reasonable prices.

Named after owner, Shin Ito, this izakaya very much resembles its name sake: humble, welcoming and a little rough around the edges. Walls liberally plastered with nihonshu labels, displays of sake related paraphernalia, and rustic slab timber table tops give you the distinct impression that this is a manly drinking den… perhaps not the best venue for dinner with my Japanese ‘mother’ and ‘little sister’. Thankfully, Mama and Tee-chan come from good country stock, and settled into their seats unfazed.

The dimly lit main room has hongetsu seating for 10, while deeper into the space are counter seats in front of the small kitchen where Ito-san single-handedly prepares the all the food. Despite being a Monday night, the place was full when we arrived, and tables turned over several times throughout the evening with patrons who were familiar with the owner – Shin obviously has a loyal following.

Straight down to business, I got stuck into the sake menu which has an interesting selection of famous jizake labels, as well as a few more obscure names I had never come across. As Shin specialises in namazake, stock levels are kept at a minimum. The benefit of this is that the sake list is updated daily, and customers can be assured that what they are being served it at its optimum.

On the evening I visited, there were 10 varieties of 23BY sake on offer, and, as it was early December, a showcase of half-dozen varieties of shinshu and shiboritate releases. As the name suggests, shinshu (新酒) is ‘new sake’ which has not undergone full maturation, while shiboritate (しぼり立て) is ‘just-pressed’ sake that hasn’t had any maturing at all. Both are young, fresh and often brash in flavour, but give an insight into the potential of this year’s brew.

I’m not a huge fan of these adolescent styles, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try Shichihonyari’s Junmai Shiboritate Nama Genshu (七本鎗 純米しぼりたて生原酒 – Tamasakae rice 60%). Mama, who prefers a sweeter style, opted for the waiters suggestion of the Mutsuhassen Blue Label Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu Funasake (陸奥八仙 青ラベル特別純米無濾過生原酒ふな酒 – 60%) made with Masshigura, a newly developed variety of Aomori table rice. As both were new season, unpasteurised and undiluted, they had plenty of punch and vibrancy. The Mutsuhassen had a lovely melon fragrance and soft mouthfeel, but was a little too sweet and assertive for me; I much preferred Shichihonyari’s cleaner, more restrained flavour.

Drinks sorted, we turned out attention to the food, and the attractive ootoshi plate that had been set before us. From top right: Mini oden, kaki no shiraae (persimmon mixed with tofu, sesame paste and white miso), fried sato imo, grilled aubergine topped with a barley miso, pumpkin salad, and ebi in ‘American sauce’ – a milder version of Cantonese XO sauce. Wow! I wasn’t expecting this level of quality or plating to come out of the kitchen. And if the otooshi was any indication, Shin was about to blow away my low expectations.

The quality of the fish an izakaya uses in its sashimi moriawase is always a good benchmark for me, and I was more than happy with the grade of Shin’s selection: kanburi (winter yellowtail), ika (squid), shime-saba (cured mackerel), uni, madai (sea bream/snapper) and autumn katsuo (skipjack/bonito) with a julienne of garlic.

This was my first encounter of Sakehitosuji, from Toshimori Shuzo in Okayama; a jizake brewery, which only use locally grown rice. Their Shiboritate ‘Snail’ Junmai-ginjo is made with Hyogo Kitanishiki rice 酒一筋 純米吟醸 かたつむり (兵庫北錦 55%), a new variety of sakamai breed from Nadahikari and Gohyakumongaku. The ‘snail’ had a floral ginjo nose and the assertive, tight taste one would expect from a new season’s brew. Things calmed down as it approached room temperature, revealing some pleasant spicy and umami notes.

A monster sized iwashi shioyaki (salt grilled sardine) had Mama in raptures. I watched in amusement and pride as she picked the bones clean, guts and all.

I couldn’t get enough of the aburi shime-sabe with goma (sesame) sauce. This is surely the best way to enjoy cured mackerel – flame seared so that the skin crisps up and the rich flavour of the flesh is released. Fatty, fishy and deliciously moreish.

You won’t find bog-standard izakaya dishes like kara-age on the menu here. However, you can get your greasy food fix with a plate of uni and hamo isobeage: deep-fried, nori wrapped totoro (grated yam), stuffed with sea urchin and conger eel, served with sudachi lime and smoked sea salt – agemono elevated to another level.

The fresh ginjo fragrance and clean, balanced flavours of Sanrensei’s Junmai-ginjo Muroka Genshu (三連星 純米吟醸 無ろ過生原酒 – Wataribune No#6, 55%) was a great match for all of the rich winter fish we were eating. It’s definitely worth seeking out this Shiga sake.

A healthy portion of grilled aubergine and shiitake salad topped with crispy flakes of fried nori was a delicious reprieve from all the fishy protein.

Kanae is a new label by Shunshumeijo brewery, in Nagano, makers of more widely known Ryozanpaku and Takizawa brands. I ordered the 23BY Kanae Junmai-ginjo Nama Genshu, (鼎 純米吟醸 生酒Miyama Nishiki 55%), but the waiter generously offered me a complementary glass of the newly released Kanae Akiagari Junmai-ginjo (鼎 純米吟醸限定 秋あがり- Miyama Nishiki 55% ) as a side-by-side tasting. Both had a crisp, fruity ginjo fragrance and slightly sweet rice flavour, with the younger of the two having a brash acidity that made you sit up and take notice. I much preferred the more subdued and balanced 23BY, but was thankful for the comparison, nonetheless.

Mama went old school with the last order of the night: Ika no shiokara ochazuke. Ika no shiokara is basically squid that has been fermented in its own guts, and ochazuke is cooked rice which has green tea, water or – in this case – dashi poured over it. Put the two together and you have a warm, comforting umami bomb. Definitely not for the faint hearted!

Shin may lack the accessibility and big name sake labels of Tokyo’s more renowned izakaya, but if you value good food and regional sake, served without pretension, then it’s well worth making a detour to this little diamond in the rough.

Shin
03-3760-9596

Tokyo Izakaya: My Favourite Counter

Teiji Nakamura may not be a name many are familiar with, but you most certainly should be aware of the fine establishments of this renowned restaurateur. When an occasion calls for good food and sake with a touch of sophistication, his flagship izakaya, Namikibashi Namamura, and its equally impressive sister shop, KAN, have long been my destinations of choice. However, since the departure of KAN’s talented head chef, Sasaki-san, I have been looking for a new shop to call home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to search far as a prodigy of Nakamura, Kotaro Hayashi, had opened at shop which seamlessly filled the void.
Opening last year to much fanfare from the local foodie community and immediately drew praise from such luminaries as the izakaya guru Kazuhiko Ota, who is a regular. But, as with any place in Tokyo that has a buzz about it, getting a reservation was – and still is – frustratingly difficult. Despite my jouren-san (regular customer) status, I couldn’t get a reservation there until early this year, and even then I had to book three weeks in advance!
Located behind the Ceralean Tower Hotel, in the tangled backstreets of Sakuragaoka, Kotaro-san’s shop has the trademark Nakamura look: stylish, contemporary ambiance combined with a wabi-sabi aesthetic. The narrow shop is dominated by an elegant wooden counter that encloses the focal point of the space – an immaculate kitchen, with a few table seats at the rear for groups of four. Because of its small dimensions, it seats only 22 diners, the shop immediately feels cozy and intimate.

Before opening his own izakaya, Hayashi-san rose through the ranks of Nakamura’s establishments; beginning at Playground, in Shimokitazawa, before going on to head the kitchen at KAN for 10 years.

The influence is immediately noticeable on the menu, with many classic ‘Nakamura’ dishes making an appearance. What is also evident is that Hayashi-san pays close attention to seasonal ingredients, utilising produce from well-sourced regional purveyors and organic farmers. Along with its rustic washoku fare there are a variety of small plates of umami packed otsumami that pair nicely with sake.

On a late summer visit, a refreshing glass of French sauvignon blanc was the call of the day – I forget what it was, but it sure hit the spot. We settled into our seats and nimbled on a tasty otoshi of shintorisai and green soybean ohitashi, garnished with katsuobushi.
Sake lovers will take comfort in the staff’s thoughtful selection of jizake a rarity in Shibuya. They stock a variety of sake from 8 well-regarded kura: the first page of the menu lists lighter varieties; the second, more full-bodied sakes, with plenty of yamahai for those that like a more robust style.

 

I am always delighted to find offerings from Shizuoka on a sake list, and even more so when it’s Kikuyoi; a kura which consistently produces excellent sake. We started with an old favourite, the Kikuyoi Tokubetsu Junmai (喜久醉 特別純米 – Yamada Nishiki 60%). This slightly golden hued sake has a fruity, pineapple aroma and a mellow, ricey junmai flavour. Dry and finely textured, this sake makes you want to go back for more.

Watching Hayashi-san’s expert and rhymic knife skills was almost as enjoyable as eating the pretty sashimi moriawase he placed before us.

Not only is the sashimi of very good quality, it is also made with sustainable fish. From front left: shime-aji (white trevally), katsuo (skipjack tuna), shime-saba (cured makerel), sanma (Pacific saury) and shako. The soft purple-hued shako (Mantis shrimp) is a violent little crustacean which comes into season around summer. Its slightly grainy texture really sings with a spritz of fresh citrus.

A ‘Nakamura’ classic: Creamy, silken yakko (fresh tofu) dressed with a warm sesame soy sauce, topped with sauteed leeks, jako (fried baby sardines) and a chiffonade of katsuobushi. The soft, creamy tofu is perfectly complemented by the salty and crunchy topping. This is a dish which could certainly convert even the most ardent carnivore to the joys of the humble bean curd.
Another consistently good sake that works well with summer seafood is the Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funeshibori (石鎚純米吟醸緑ラベル槽搾り- Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Ehime. It’s lightly fragranced, with a faint sweetness that is balanced out with mineral notes and a pleasant acidity. Crisp and refreshing like pure spring water.
With the mercury still in the 30’s, I had a craving for a bright and clean salad to combat my summer lethargy. Hayashi-san was sympathetic to my plight and generously offered to make us something off menu, rustling up a vibrant salad of fresh, organic aubergine, new season tomato and Tokyo bekana (a  small Chinese cabbage) with a piquant shiso and sesame dressing. Delicious and revitalising – he read me perfectly.
Sanma is a peak this time of year, and is ubiquitous on menus. A relation of mackerel, this humble and inexpensive fish needs little embellishment; salted and charcoal grilled (shioyaki), and a simple garnish of grated daikon seasoned with soy sauce and a splash of fresh sudachi lime is the best way to enjoy its richly flavoured flesh.
Impressed by the summer menu, I immediately re-booked for autumn; a time when a cornucopia of harvest produce is available and fish, plumped up with fat after their long swim down from the cold waters of the far north, return to the Japanese archipelago in abundance. It’s my favourite season for food.
Anago (sea eel), duck,  kaki (oysters) and buri (yellowtail) feature heavily on the autumn menu, but what I was most excited about was the return of ankimo (monkfish liver). Anyone who knows me, will be well aware that the start of autumn heralds the beginning of my annual ankimo binge… and if Hayashi-san’s homemade ankimo ponzu was anything to go by, it was going to be a dangerously delicious season.
The clean and dry flavour of Taka’s Tokubetsu Junmai (貴 特別純米長州の純米酒 -Yamada Nishiki/Hattan Nishiki 60%), from Yamaguchi, works well with the richer flavours of autumn food. It has an appealing fruity fragrance, with mellow sweetness and gentle acidity – very quaffable.
Another ‘Nakamura’ classic: potato salad. A simple dish elevated to another level with the addition of a perfectly cooked smoked egg and goma dressing.
Shichihonyari is made by one of Japan’s oldest breweries, Tomita Shuzo. Founded in the 1540’s, near the shores of Lake Biwa, the history of this tiny kura is as compelling as the well-crafted sake they produce. 15th generation brewer, Yasunobu Tomita, may be young and worldly, but he also has the wisdom to continue to produce sake in accordance with the philosophy and traditional techniques of his forefathers. Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Namagenshu (七本槍 純米吟醸 垂れ口直汲み 生原酒 – Tamasakae 55%), made with Shiga’s native Tamasakae rice that is pressed using a traditional wooden fune, embodies the taste and artisan craftmenship of this grand old kura. It has an appley ginjo fragrance, with a mellow flavour that finishes crisply, leaving your palate refreshed for another sip. Divine!
The penultimate dish was a hearty buri, tofu agedashi and kinoko ankage, that Hayashi-san divided into individual portions for my companion and me. Ankage is a thick, clear sauce made with kuzu (arrowroot) flour, so it has the slightly neba-neba consistency that my Japanese friends adore…and I struggle with. The buri was buttery; the tofu soft and pillowy, and the mild dashi flavour of the sauce was nicely enlivened by the grated daikon and dusting of yuzu zest. I really wanted to enjoy it, but that gooey texture puts me off every time.
While my friend greedily finished off my bowl, I sort sustenance in a tokkuri of Souken Tokubetsu Junmai (宗玄 特別純米 純粋無垢 – Yamada Nishiki 55%), from Ishikawa. Elegantly fragranced and a clean mouthfeel, with plenty of flavour and excellent balance.
Make sure to leave room for the bukakke udon which Hayashi-san makes by hand each day. It’s a little nod to his Kagawa roots.

Repeat visits over the past 12 months have left me in no doubt that the team here are on top of their game. Their passion and knowledge of seasonal produce is evident in the consistently good food and sake they showcase each month. But what I enjoy most about Hayashi-san’s shop is that it hits just the right balance between casual and sophisticated dining. It’s a place conducive to conversation over plates of satisfying food, and the clinking of ochoko with good friends.

[A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy restaurant. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend, or booking at the more English friendly Nakamura]

 

Tokyo Food & Natural Wine: Ahiru Store, Yoyogi-Koen – アヒルストア、代々木公園


Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine’s wine bar edition and,  needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer’s seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coveted in town.

One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abating. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru’s door. 


Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that emanate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads – it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.


If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons. 

 
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
 

‘Natural’ has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine.  But what does it actually mean?
 
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially its organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar – yes, it’s considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented ‘naked’ wine, low in sulphur, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.

 
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it ‘before it was cool’…groan! But its popularity can’t just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally ‘on trend’ individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently received as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine. 
 
 
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public’s concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year’s Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.

Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as ‘faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice’, with Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers”. It’s hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have aficionados so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that’s exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
 


Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate’s Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion – a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san’s description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine – albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.

On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san’s sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen, preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb. 

We started with a basket of their in-house baked breads: potato & rosemary focaccia and a moreish wedge of the onion pain de campagne. Both were outstanding. I should mention that you don’t have to dine-in to sample their selection – it can be bought from the door as take-out.

 

The bread was also put to good use mopping up this simple preparation of haricot beans cooked in olive oil with sage, and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious. 

I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of prosciutto ham. Devilishly addictive. 

After requesting something a little dryer, I was served a glass of Cheverny “Les Perrieres” 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion – the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn’t know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn’t send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics – or vinegar, when it’s not.

Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled – even the reds – due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion – more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, “Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?

 
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all. 
 

Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don’t eat meat, it was up to my companion to ‘take one for the team’ with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.


A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity – very drinkable.  

 

There was an audible ‘pop’ on opening of the Vin d’Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much ‘alive’. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less. 

This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.

It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles – he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot’s 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.

I applaud the ‘less-is-more’ debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I’ve had some ‘ahh’ moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I’ve tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as micro-bacterial disasters – a result of natural wine makers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
 
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It’s a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here. 
 
So regardless of where you stand on the ‘natural vs. conventional’ spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.  
 
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm. 
 
03-5454-2146
 
 

Tokyo Standing Bar: Fujiya Honten Wine Bar, Shibuya – 富士屋本店ワインバー, 渋谷

Kicking around the south side of Shibuya Station after Funkommunity’s epic first gig in Tokyo, we were feeling peckish, but indecisive. Not wanting to commit to a sit down meal, we headed to Fujiya Wine Bar, an offshoot of the infamous tachinomiya, Fujiya Honten. The original is a bit of an institution and the preferred watering hole for local oyaji who like to drink cheap and eat even cheaper – nothing is over ¥500. But that grimy dive bar is a far cry from its sparkling new standing bar, which is designed to target the youngermore urban demographic that frequent the area.


No oyagi here, it’s mostly dating couples and young professionals, but the basic ethos is still the same: a huge selection of bargain basement priced wines and inexpensive small plates of pan-European fare served without any airs or graces. 
    


The wine list is a thick wad of laminated cards of that profile a vast selection of inexpensive new and old world wines. Prices range from ¥1,600 – ¥4,500, but most hover around the ¥2,500 mark. There are also about 20 red and white wines available by the glass for ¥500. Go for a bottle, because what you can’t drink, you can take home. And given that the prices are just a few hundred yen higher than retail, that’s a pretty good deal!

I was tempted by the Hugel Riesling, but as the music had shifted our thoughts to The Land of the Long White Cloud, we opted for a bottle of Old Coach Road Chardonnay, the economy label of Siegfried Estate; a winery renown for making of some consistently good New Zealand whites.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, tachinimoya are a great option for those in need of something ultra casual; you can drink order a drink and a plate then move on, or (as in our case) order cheap booze and food for as long as you can bear to stand. Generally, food is snacky and fairly underwhelming – drinking being the main focus. So it was pleasant surprise to discover that the dishes being pumped out of Fujiya’s small kitchen were both generously proportioned and tasty. 


Table menus and blackboards list a variety of tapas and izakaya style dishes priced between ¥500-¥800. Apparently an English menu is available, but, as is so often the case, it only has their standard items – you will need to as for the daily specials.   

I handed over ordering duties to The Stylist, as I did the obligatory Instagram photo documentation, and it seems that he was hungry, because we soon ran out of table space to accommodate it all.

A mixture of olives and pickles. Sure, they were straight out of the bottle, but at least they weren’t stingy with the portions.

Tai capaccio. Not so keen on the cherry tomato garnish, but the marinade was tasty and the fish nice & tender.

The Poor Man’s Caviar, or caviar d’aubergine, was nicely seasoned but lacked the smokiness of charcoal grilled eggplant that is the hallmark of the dish.

The elaborate saucing of the dishes made me wonder if there was a frustrated artist in the kitchen. Our caprice salad may have been made with hot house tomatoes and commercial mozzarella cheese, but the post-impressionist flourishes of basil dressing enlivened it nicely.

Kani-miso a la Jackson Pollock? A playful interpretation of an izakaya standard: crab meat deep fried in a thread-like patter with tobiko and a creamy kani-miso (crab entrail) sauce.

Kaki (oyster) and spinach gratin with a crunchy parmesan topping. Piping hot, creamy and packed with flavour.

Did they know we were coming? An order of lamb chops and sweet potato (or kumara, as we call it back home) was an obvious choice for a group of displaced Kiwis. The meat could have done with a little more resting, but judging from the oohs and aah’s from around the table, it was a hit.

The boys give their seal of approval. Last orders were called at 10:30, and by that they meant, “Drink up! We’re closing at 11pm.” Sure enough, at 11:01 – on the dot – we found ourselves on the pavement looking for a venue for our nijikai.

While the send-off may have been a little perfunctory, Fujiya Honten Wine Bar had served its purpose: we had full tummies and a cheap wine buzz. Its combination of good food and wine, low prices and convivial atmosphere make this standing bar a great option if ever you find yourself at a loose end on the south-side of Hachiko.

Fujiya Honten Wine Bar 
03-3461-2128

Tokyo Sake: Sake no Ana, Ginza – 酒の穴、銀座


Ginza is an area synonymous with international luxury brand stores, posh boutiques and exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. Given that the real estate is famously amongst the most expensive in the world, this is a place you should expect to dine out on an expense account – not a budget. Well, so I thought, until I discovered a welcoming watering hole named Sake no Ana (literally The Sake Hole), a veritable rough diamond amidst Ginza’s glitz.



Despite its location, Sake no Ana is a reasonably priced izakaya, with an excellent sake selection and decent food. Built during the bubble years, it may look a little worn around the edges these days, but I find its old school ambience rather charming. The clientele is mostly portly mid-management level salarymen, who chain smoke and talk nonsense, while the kimono-clad waitresses attentively tend to their needs. 



Seating is available at the counter, which overlooks an impressive wall of glass fronted sake fridges, or at small tables inlayed with snazzy individual copper sake warmers. The in-house sake sommelier, Sakamoto-san, is an invaluable guide, and is often able to ‘find’ you something not listed on the menu from the the 130 plus labels he keeps in stock. 



Case in point: My recent visit. I was keen to introduce my visitors to nigori, knowing this is a type of sake they would rarely find in their home country. When I enquired why there was none listed on the menu, Sakamoto-san disappeared for a few minutes and returned with an unopened bottle of Harushika ‘Shiromiki’ Junmai Daiginjo Nigori (春鹿 しろみき 純米大吟醸 活性にごり酒 – Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Nara. I was chuffed; not only did I he find the kind of rich and textured nigori I was hankering for, but I was also introduced to a label I had never tried. Well played, Sir!



Flushed with success, we perused the menu while nibbling on a dainty otooshi of mitsuba, chrysanthemum petals and enoki mushrooms in a chilled dashi broth. 

The menu offers a comprehensive range of standard izakaya fare: a wide variety of sashimi, grilled fish and meats, as well as the deep-fried treats and umami packed sake snacks, which are the staples of many a salaryman’s drinking session. Their English menu is a boon for non-Japanese speaking travellers, however, because it is not updated, you will need to ask about daily or seasonal specials.



When confronted with such a broad menu, I tend to lower my expectations of the food quality from the kitchen – corners often need to be cut in order to prep so many dishes. That said, I always find the fish served at Sake no Ana to be of good quality and nicely prepared. On this visit, we started off with a simple trio of mizutako (octopus), hamachi and shime-saba (cured mackerel) sashimi.



A current favourite: Kameizumi Junmai Ginjo Namazake (亀泉 純米吟醸 生酒) from Kochi, a tiny prefecture on the island of Shikoku, which has the distinction of having one of the highest rates of sake consumption per capita in the country. Sake from this area tends to be dry, clean and robust without a lot of aromatics. Kameizumi’s namazake shirk this generalisation, by being softer, fresher and more fragrant in style, which may come down to their use of the yeast strain CEL-24 – a yeast that went into space, apparently. I don’t know what happened to it in the stratosphere, but whatever it was, it’s creating some wonderful sake back here on planet Earth. 


Autumn is a great season for saba (mackeral), and this grilled, home-smoked saba was outstanding.
Fatty, with mild smoky flavours and a big wallop of umani. A wonderful match for sake.



Having lived in the Izu area of Shizuoka, the local himono (salted semi-dried fish),  is comfort food for me. It’s not the most photogenic of foods, but a whole hokke is a tasty and inexpensive way to fill up at an izakaya.


Namashima, from Saga-ken in Kyushu, produces consistently good sake. Their purple labelled junmai ginjo (鍋島 純米吟醸 山田錦 – Yamada Nishiki 50%) is a favourite in the summer months, but as the weather cools I turn to the fuller flavours of their orange label junmai ginjo (鍋島 純米吟醸 雄町 – Omachi 50%) to match the heartier autumnal fare. Clean, balanced and softly fragranced, this sake never disappoints. 


Once the sake kicks in there is no escaping the sirens call of deep-fried goodies. These enticing golden nuggets of panko encrusted kani (crab) cream croquette were delicious and restorative. 


Out of curiosity I ordered the in-house label, Sake no Ana Daiginjo (酒の穴 大吟醸 – Yamada Nishiki 50%), which is brewed in Nagano by Osawa brewery, makers of the well regarded Meikyoshisu (明鏡止水) label. It was soft and pleasant,  but given their excellent selection I would only order it for the sheer novelty.


Drained sake pitchers signal the end of another eventful evening of ‘research’. The combination of friendly, knowledgeable service, good food and a comprehensive sake selection, means that it is very easy to justify repeat visits to this ‘Sake Hole’ –  especially when it doesn’t put too much of a hole in your wallet.


Sake no Ana
3567-1133

Tokyo Sake: An Epic Tasting @ Akaoni – 赤鬼 – UPDATE

After a long absence from sake, Asomaniac and I made up for lost time in the most spectacular fashion. What follows are the tastings notes of a sake session which was impressive in both quality and quantity.

All sake is nama and made with Yamada Nishiki rice, unless otherwise stated. The percentage figures are the level of rice refinement.

We started off with the Akaoni Private Bin Juyondai Junmai Daiginjo (赤鬼PB十四代純吟原酒 – 50%) and, on the manager’s suggestion, compared it with the Juyondai drip pressed Junmai Ginjo (十四代 中取り純米吟醸 – 40%). Both were wonderfully smooth and clean, but the refreshing and lively palate of the Akaoni made it our favourite of the round.

 

My esteemed companion believes that when drinking it’s better to start with the best quality and work your way down, as your palette and mind become fatigued. So, in keeping with this rule, we ordered up a round of the star players: Juyondai’s premium label Soukou Daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 斗瓶囲い 双虹 – 35%) and the Ryuugetsu special brewed Junmai Daiginjo (十四代 特別純米大吟醸 龍月 – 40%). Sadly, the Ryuugetsu was sold out, so in its place we chose the standard daiginjo (十四代 大吟醸 – 35%)  – and what an inspired decision it was! The ‘regular’ daiginjo was our hands down favourite; fragrant, refined and beautifully balanced.


We departed from Yamagata and headed down to the other end of the country for our next round, sampling the refreshing, fruity bouqueted Kannihonkai Daiginjo (環日本海 大吟醸斗瓶囲い – 35%), from Shimane, and the Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo (獺祭 磨き二割三分 純米大吟醸), from Yamaguchi. Self proclaimed sake experts love to diss Dassai for being overly refined, feminine and too widely available. Apparently, real connoisseurs only drink the austere, earthy varieties of obscure kura. Well, they can keep their unfiltered yamahai, I am an unabashed fan of the sake produced by this innovative Yamaguchi kura. Having enjoyed their 50, 45, and 39, I had high expectations of the 23 – the highest level of refinement on the market. And, as I expected, it was outstanding; smooth, elegant flavors combined with a delicate honeydew melon aroma. Superb!

 

Just when I thought I had tried the cream of the crop, Asomaniac informed me that there is actually an even more select 23 which is pressed using central frugal force. Nakamura-san confirmed this by whipping out his keitai and showing us an image of the high-tech piece of equipment used in the process. It looked a little something like this:

For or my erudition, Aso-san ordered two varieties of his favourite sake, Yuki No Bosha, from Akita. A bit of post-session research revealed that Saiya Shuzoten – the brewery that produces Yuki No Bosha – was the very first kura to be certified as organic. Furthermore, all of their sake is unfiltered genshu, made with Akita Komachi rice.
Back to the tasting, we drank #66 (from a batch of 300) of the limited edition Yuki No Bosha Daiginjo (雪の茅舎 大吟醸 生酒原酒 第六十六番 – 35%) . It was a revelation: a mild, melon fragrance, that harmonised beautifully with its full, balanced flavour. Stunning! The Yuki No Bosha Freshly Pressed Junmai Ginjo (雪の茅舎 しぼりたて 純米吟醸生酒 – 55%) was also fantastic. It had a refreshing aroma reminiscent of fruit, and a light, elegant flavour.
I was less enthusiastic about the amber hued Hakuyocho Daiginjo 18BY (伯陽長 大吟醸 – 35%), from Tottori. At 5 years old, it had the viscous mouth feel and musty earthy, sherry-like notes of a koshu sake. You can’t win them all.

As fan of Isojiman, I was disappointed to see that it was not listed on the menu – sold out, apparently. Instead, we opted for another well-regarded Shizuoka sake, the Special edition Kaiun Daiginjo (開運 大吟醸 伝 波瀬正吉 – 40%), named in honour of the former toji, Hase Shokichi. Beautifully crafted, with the floral bouquet, harmonious flavour, and crystal clear finish that I so readily associate with Shizuoka sake.

There was food, but nothing of note. The sashimi moriawase that I had pre-ordered was mediocre; the uni inedible. Basically, don’t come here to eat. The one success of the night was the yuzu kosho tofu misozuke, which I had enjoyed previously. Aso-san went nuts for it, ordering plates in triplicate until we had exhausted the kitchen’s entire stock.

I’m fortunate to live a short walk from Kagataya, one of the best little sake shop in town. Its owner converted me to the joys of Nabeshima, from Saga, and it’s purple labeled junmai ginjou is one of my summer staples.  The Nabeshima Nakakumi Muroka Junmai Ginjou, made from Gohyakumangoku rice (鍋島 中汲み純米吟醸 五百万石 – 50%) had mellow base notes, with a heady fragrance and smooth finish. Equally impressive was Asomaniac’s pick, the soft and slightly sweet Miwasakura Junmai Daiginjou made with Omachi rice (美和桜 純米吟醸 生原酒 雄町 – 50%), from Hiroshima. 

I could have been because of the sheer volume that we were drinking, or maybe it was just Asomanic’s boyish charm, but the service we received throughout the evening was exceptional. Nakamura-san and a lovely female staff member took their time to answer our questions, and give a little background on each sake. Once he was familiar with the styles that we preferred, we handed the selection over him and sat back to reap the rewards.

On the left, Sakunohana Muroka -non-charcoal filtered- Junmai Ginjou (佐久の花 純米吟醸 無濾過 生原酒直汲み – 55%), from Nagano, which was made with local Hitogokochi rice. It had a pleasant fruit fragrance, and a slightly sweet flavour, that was balanced out with a nice amount of acidity and astringency. On the right, from a small Aichi kura, the charming Chouchin ‘Newspaper Series’ Junmai Ginjo, (長珍 純米吟醸  新聞紙シリーズ 生 無濾過 – 50%). It had fresh aromas, lively acidity and a deep flavour which really opened up as it reached room temperature. An idiosyncratic feature of this sake is – as its name suggests – that it’s packaged wrapped in newspaper to protect it from heat and light.  No info on which newspaper they prefer, but you know I tried to find out. #geek.

For our last round, Nakamura-san selected a couple of gems. The Orouku Takemichi Junmai Ginjou (王禄 ‘丈径’ 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 – 55%), is another sake named in honour of its toji – Ishihara Takemichi. Using only organic Yamada Nishiki rice, this young Shimane kura has created a lovely full-bodied sake with a lively, clean finish. Finally, from Shiga, the Sakamatsu Junmai Ginjo (さか松純米大吟醸 生酒 – 50%): a soft, restained fragrance, with a pleasantly refreshing, yet rich flavour. Done!

With minds and palettes worn out, and the effects of the sake kicking in, most sensibly minded people would have headed home for a cuppa tea and a lie down. That, however, was not to be. We rallied with a battle  cry of, “Rum and Cuban cigars!”, settled our bill, and wobbled off into the night to continue the revelry.

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

 

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

Tokyo Food: Uoshin, Shibuya – 魚真、渋谷

The words ‘chain izakaya’ conjure up images of Watami, Wara-Wara, Gonpachi and the other ubiquitous brands which have glutted the market with their riffs on lowest common denominator washoku fare, using pre-prepared ingredients, assembled and served by indifferent staff, at a customer friendly price point. While the price may be right, these are not the kind of establishments one finds quality produce nor creativity – unless of course you consider those abstract squiggles of mayonnaise that smother the dishes as some attempt at culinary flair.

However, it would be foolish to tar all chain stores with the same brush. Uoshin, for example, is a small chain (9 stores in the Tokyo area) of seafood izakayas which offer consistently good food in a friendly and unpretentious setting. Owned by a major seafood wholesaler that does business out of Tsukiji market, the selection and quality of the fish on offer never disappoints. Reliability, reasonable prices coupled with a pretty decent sake list mean that Uoshin has gotten plenty of repeat custom out of me.

In a basement floor, tucked away from the hurly-burly streets of the Dogenzaka, lies the source of fish: Uoshin Shibuya Honten. The aesthetic can best be described as functional, and the service is friendly but direct – make no mistake about it, the focus here is being fed.
No picture menu here. A densely packed handwritten menu lists the specials of the day, a half page of which is devoted solely to the sashimi and grilled fish options. Don’t bother trying to translate it all – just go for the varieties highlighted with a red circle, which signify the market specials.
Naturally, sashimi is the starting point, but if the choosing from the myriad of varieties is too overwhelming then the sashimi moriawase is the best default. The standard omakase plate of 6 varieties starts from ¥1,500 (for 2), but I recommend ponying up the extra ¥900 for the iitoko plate of 7, which uses better cuts of fish.
There is plenty on offer with which to wet one’s whistle. Along with the izakaya standards of draft beer, shochu and sours, Uoshin keeps a dozen or so well regarded brands of sake on hand. As the menu is exclusively seafood, I tend to stick to a light, fragrant style of sake so as to not overpower the flavour of the fish. Favourites include: Isojiman honjozo (磯自慢 本醸造), from Shizuoka (left); Dassai 50 jumnai ginjou (獺祭 純米吟醸50), from Yamaguchi (middle); the robust Denshu special brew junmai (田酒特別純米), from Awamori, was the managers recommendation for the male of the group… meh! 

The menu even includes a helpful beginners guide to sake grades to aid the selection process, bless. 

It’s worth taking a surreptitious trip to the bathroom in order to check out the sake fridge on route. In past clandestine missions I have spied unlisted bottles of Juyondai and various junmai daiginjou’s which I then promptly ordered – much to the bemusement of the manager.

Juyondai’s popularity makes it is nye on impossible to buy retail. Its stellar reputation coupled with limited distribution means that what is available goes to directly to izakaya and restaurants. Even then, when you do come across it on a menu, its either ‘temporarily’ sold out or the basic Honmaru honjozo label. So colour me lucky when I spotted an unopened bottle of the special brewed Yuyondai Honmaru  (十四代「特別本醸造」本丸生詰). It had a light vanilla aroma and soft balanced flavour, without the usual brashness that one expects of a honjozo. Yum.

The perfect drink needs a perfect match, and in my book you can’t get much better than ankimo (monkfish liver); that fatty and fishy fois gras of the sea. Granted, Uoshin’s is of the processed variety, but as expensive attempts to make it at home have failed dismally, I’m not one to complain. 
If ankimo is not available, mirokyu (cucumber with barley miso) and a bowl of tsukemono are good drinking standbys.
                            
Tofu salad with fried jakko and an onsen tamago (the latter of which was omitted due to my gaijin queasiness of barely cooked egg) is a pleasant way to get your 5+ a day.

Or perhaps grilled ika (squid) with marinated vegetables is more to your liking. It certainly was for us.

Fried octopus with daikon momiji (grated daikon mixed with a mild chili pepper), was one of the daily specials, and paired perfectly with the above mentioned Isojiman.

Uoshin is one of the few places I order agemono (deep-fried food), as there is no risk of the oil being contaminated with the taste of chicken – so often the case in other izakaya. The name of this little creamy shimp and mentaiko nugget of yumminess escapes me, but I do remember someone saying it hailed from Ehime.

Handline caught Kinmedai nitsuke (gold-eye snapper braised in sweet soy sauce), is my idea of comfort food. Perfectly cooked so that the flesh easily feel away from the bone, this dish exemplifies what Uoshin is all about: good, seasonal food, done well. 
Just remember to book.
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.

Uoshin Shibuya Honten
03-3464-3000