10 Great Sake Dens

Michael Anstendig, New York Observer contributor, 02/27/2009

Revered as Japan’s “Drink of the Gods,” sake is the traditional offering to Shinto deities. With good reason—it’s pretty miraculous stuff. Employing rice, yeast and water, some of the humblest ingredients on Earth, sake brewers can tease out a staggering array of divine aromas and flavors, from the earthy to the fruity. New Yorkers have lately become hip to sake, having figured out the good stuff isn’t flogged at scalding temperatures in cheesy ceramic bottles. Sake-drenched drinkeries have happily proliferated to meet this new thirst, offering mind-bending varieties, tasty eats and diverse vibes. Sakagura lays out an encyclopedic collection, a veritable sea of sake to sample. B Flat combines superb sakes with classic jazz and world-class cocktails. Sake Hana pours on the romance and EN Japanese Brasserie oozes courtly elegance, while more youthful spots like Satsko, Hagi and Decibel serve up boisterous bonhomie that’s as strong as their rice wines.

Photo: Fitsum Belay

Sake Bar Satsko
If you’re looking for a casual watering hole that just happens to have sake and Japanese-inflected eats, Sake Bar Satsko is your place. With large plate-glass windows, this street-level sakery is one of the few that welcomes natural light. Its ambiance is East Village bohemian, the walls plastered with Polaroid portraits of loyal customers, mostly local professionals and artists. Red and orange beaded lampshades provide a hippy feel and blue and white Christmas lights add some sparkle. The L-shaped wood bar seats eight and there are two booths with silky cushions that encourage lingering. The Waka-Ebisu Ninja, a full-bodied and fruity tokubetsu junmai from Mie, marries up well with the menu’s massive spicy tuna rolls, notable for their toothsome piscine chunks, rather than the more common minced versions. The Meibo Yowanotsuki, a junmai ginjo, has a slight Granny Smith apple character that accentuates grilled squid or even guacamole. In addition to Sapporo beer and Sixpoint craft ale on tap, there are jolly cocktails like the Sakegria, with sake, plum wine, pomegranate juice and fruit. Sake Bar Satsko’s unintimidating atmosphere makes it a great point of embarkation for the aspiring rice wine acolyte.

Photo: Joe Germuska

Sake Bar Hagi
Beneath the heart of Times Square, Sake Bar Hagi enacts a faithful re-creation of an authentic Tokyo subterranean pub experience. Accordingly, it’s a favorite of Japanese expats and a few adventurous Americans. Down a terrifyingly steep flight of stairs, the 11-seat bar is usually packed, with a wait for table seating. There’s not much decor, just plain white plaster walls with wood wainscoting, gray stone floors and tatami-backed banquettes. Flat-screen TVs abound, projected sporting events providing a slightly frat-house feel. The selection of sakes is respectable at around 20, with 10 shochus for those needing a stronger kick. Chikurin is a good starter, a junmai ginjo brewed from estate-cultivated rice, exuding hints of lychee and pineapple. Another good sipper is the Ginban, a junmai daiginjo from Toyama with a melon-tinged aroma. Both go well with the okonomiyaki, a pan-fried batter disk topped with savory pork and vegetables, or with the spaghetti and cream sauce spiked with spicy cod roe. Sake Bar Hagi is a great way to experience a high-spirited side of Japanese culture not often found in the swankier places.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Izakaya Ten
With Izakaya Ten, Chelsea’s gallery goers and art moguls have a sake-fueled local hangout. It’s the brainchild of Lannie Ahn, who previously ran Korean-French-fusion spot The D’Or Ahn and the sushi-driven Anzu in the same space. She’s now hit her stride with this cozy gastropub that serves up more than 40 kinds of sake, 15 shochus, a smattering of beers and wine, and homey fare. The bar, which seats eight, is monumental, made of ultra-smooth black concrete. There are also stubby wood tables and a hilarious Manga-style poster of a giant octopus attacking a seaside village. The menu lists three-dozen sakes with descriptors like “mild and complex,” as well as dots to denote smoothness. For better targeted advice, ask the bartender instead. She might recommend the Tamano Hikari “Yamahai,” a junmai ginjo made with pre-modern methods. Its pleasing tang goes well with monkfish liver and ponzu sauce, or chicken meatball skewers. For pairing with green tea flan, try the Funaguchi Kikusui, a nama (unpasteurized) sake that comes in a cheeky 200 ml can. It’s rich, sweet, lively and, at 19% ABV, packs a serious wallop.

Photo: dyanna (via Flickr)

Chibi's Bar
For a sake hideaway that makes a personal statement, Chibi’s Bar has no equal. It’s named after a pudgy French bulldog, whose likeness in innumerous portraits provides the decorative accents. The owner of both the bar and the pooch is Marja Samson, an eccentric Dutch performance artist/photographer/filmmaker who is also the force behind adjacent Kitchen Club. The place has a romantic European feel, with orange-painted walls and brown-painted wainscoting all lit by an imposing brass chandelier. The bar, topped with salmon-colored marble, seats only four and is more for show; the flirty 30-something clientele favors the intimate tables. There’s no discernible order to the 17-bottle sake menu, aside from being Marja’s favorites. Fortunately, her palate is spot on. The Wakatakejunmai daiginjo from Shizuoka pairs nicely with addictive mushroom dumplings. The Kaori junmai ginjo has a faint aroma of flowers and cucumber, as well as a refreshing citrus note, and goes surprisingly well with a cheese plate wrangled from nearby DiPalo Dairy. In business since 1997, Chibi’s Bar has the tenacity of a bulldog, as well as its offbeat charm.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Sake Bar Decibel
Founded in 1993, Decibel is New York City’s first sake bar, although this East Village institution is easy to overlook. Its descending stairs are marked only by an inconspicuous sign and a telltale sugiyama, a hanging cedar-leaf ball—the traditional symbol of a sake brewery. Once inside, don’t be put off by the divey, lived-in look. The walls are scrawled with graffiti and the folksy Japanese knickknacks could stand a freshening up, but the exuberant 20-somethings who come to carouse don’t care a whit. The main room has a 10-seat wooden bar, adorned with enormous red paper lanterns, as well as little tables offering cheek-to-jowl seating. The sake offerings are expansive, though, with nearly 80 in all on top of beer and 16 shochu choices. Mu is a reliable sake for pure, delicate dishes like sashimi. This junmai daiginjo has a hint of honeydew melon on the nose and a smooth mouthfeel. Kamoizumi, a creamy "nigori" (unfiltered) sake, will enchant the sweet-toothed. The menu also has a fine medley of Japanese pub grub, like pickled vegetables and noodle dishes. Despite its dusty decor, Decibel still shines.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

EN Japanese Brasserie
The first incursion of a well-known Nipponese chain into the US, EN Japanese Brasserie shows that quality and authenticity can be cloned—or at least propagated. The dimly lit bar area, with its soaring 20-foot ceilings, invokes an imperial palace. Walls are adorned with intricately carved wood panels and checkerboard patterns of beige and aqua-tinted rice paper. A rough-hewn cherrywood bar, which seats six, is supplemented by long pine-topped tables and stools. The 40-bottle sake menu is divided into user-friendly categories more common to the mainstream wine world, like "smooth and round" and "light and crisp." A flight of three sakes makes for a quick orientation: the Hira Izumi, ajunmai from a 26th-generation brewery, has a slight caramel nose and is light on the palate; the Biho, a ginjo brewed by a female sake maker in Hiroshima, has a hint of grapefruit; and the Nanago, a daiginjo from Nagano, pleases with notes of apple and melon. Bar nibbles include dainty portions of Kyoto-style long-simmered vegetables and seasoned seaweed. There are also two-dozen shochus, beer and international wines. Both veterans and novitiates will appreciate this accommodating portal to the sake realm.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Sake Hana
For romantic sake-swilling, few spots can beat the Upper East Side's Sake Hana. The mood is immediately set by flickering tea lights ensconced in niches in exposed brick walls. Billowing silky red fabrics undulate across the ceiling, suspended by bamboo poles. Rows of backlit sake bottles add radiance. Even the bar, which seats 10, is aglow, with subtle neon lighting embedded in its Lucite top. The tasteful canoodling takes place on the nearby velvet couches and love seats. To arrive at that happy state of affairs, there are 40 sakes, organized by type. (As an offshoot of nearby Sushi Hana, snacking here is well above average as well.) For savvy recommendations, turn to Toshi Koizumi, the affable sake adviser. He might offer the Dassai 50, a crowd-pleasing junmai ginjo from Yamaguchi. With notes of strawberry and lychee, it’s perfect with the house’s fluke carpaccio. Ply Koizumi with smiles and he might share the "secret" sake menu. Opt for the Kagatobi there, an earthy junmai made with natural, airborne yeast. Its yogurt-like nose and lactic taste take the edge off an impressively spicy stir-fried squid.

Courtesy, Zenkichi

Provided you find it (the unmarked wood plank exterior suggests a construction site), Zenkichi serves up a transporting sake experience. This tri-leveled, shadowy fun house in Williamsburg contains a warren of cozy wooden booths, linked by corridors strewn with lacquered river stones. Bamboo-slatted screen doors provide the illusion of privacy. A call button is the only way to summon the attentive waitstaff. Tokyo native Motoko Watanabe created Zenkichi, along with her Jerusalem-born husband, Shaul Margulies. They offer more than three dozen premium sakes, without distractions like wine or cocktails. Omakase dining (chef’s choice) is the key, as are the sake accompaniments. The Taiheizan Tenko, a junmai daiginjo from Akita, has cantaloupe and pear aromas that adroitly complement dishes like tuna carpaccio dressed with sesame oil, white soy sauce and yuzu. The more robust Fu-in Shu, a junmai ginjo, has a decidedly floral note, and an acidity that cuts through richer fare like pork kakuni, belly meat simmered for three days until it’s unspeakably tender and buttery. Although a bit of a schlep for Manhattanites, Zenkichi is well worth the effort of seeking out.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

B Flat
Classic jazz, sake and liquored-up libations rule the night at B Flat, an underground lair that feels like Harlem circa 1950. Beige walls are lined with jazz album covers and portraits of musicians. In addition to the bebop-heavy sound track, live music plays on Mondays and Wednesdays. A mahogany bar is joined by booths and brown leather settees, where squat oak chests serve as tables. While decidedly masculine in atmosphere, a high level of sophistication keeps things female-friendly and frat-boy-free. Shinichi Ikeda, a 10-year veteran of the venerable Angel's Share, sets out a nine-bottle sake list that’s modest in variety but outsized in quality. The Nishi No Seki, a full-bodied junmai, is well-suited for the house-smoked tuna tataki. The amber-hued Hanahato Kijo Shu, with sherry-like echoes of caramel, toffee and coffee, syncs expertly with the genmai green tea crème brûlée. There’s also a jaw-dropping array of single malts, bourbons, ryes and cognacs, as well as artisanal cocktails like the Moment’s Notice, with junmai sake, peach liqueur, plum wine and yamamomo, a mountain "peach" adored by monkeys. With Zen-like attentiveness and zero attitude, B Flat sounds a high note.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Lodged in the basement of an utterly unremarkable Midtown office building, Sakagura represents the mother lode for sake seekers. Its unparalleled selection, more than 200 strong, is easily the most extensive in the US. The place itself, once you’ve found it, suggests the courtyard of a rustic sake brewery in Japan, complete with enormous cedar vats. The cherrywood bar seats 16, and there are ample wood tables and booths with decorative bamboo shades. Scads of multicolored sake bottles and ceremonial casks line the walls to whet the thirsts of the clientele, 30- and 40-something Japanese machers and their American counterparts. The menu is organized by sake category, further subdivided by region. Try Minowamon, a handcrafted junmai daiginjo. With lilac notes, crisp acidity and a creamy texture, it pairs nicely with chilled roast duck and scallion in basil sauce. Tengumai Umajun is another engaging choice. A junmai brewed using laborious old-school methods, its complex aroma and taste stand up to beef ribs or grilled dishes like squid or Japanese eggplant. Sakagura is Gotham’s definitive sake experience.

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