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.
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.
純米吟醸 無ろ過生原酒 – Wataribune No#6, 55%)
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.
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.