Several years ago, before I had even heard the word izakaya, I was fond of going to seasonal sake tasting parties at New York City's Sakagura. They were a great way to learn about sake. An izakaya is a Japanese pub or casual eating and drinking establishment. It translates roughly to "place where sake is"basically a spot for serious eating and drinking. In Japan, izakaya are popular with salarymen looking to unwind and enjoy a drink and a bite after work. The drinks of choice are beer, sake and shochu, a vodka-type spirit distilled from various kinds of grains. The fare is mostly small plates, which are ordered as the mood strikes at any point during the evening. Typical items, which are then shared among those at the table, are skewers of grilled meat, sashimi, grilled fish, pickles, fried chicken, savory snacks like fried lotus root chips and bits of dried fish. These days in New York, there are more than half a dozen izakaya in the Saint Marks vicinity, several farther uptown, and now one in Brooklyn's Williamsburg.
I paid a visit to Sakagura last week. Its basement location in an office building near the United Nations makes me think of it as a “sake-easy.” Sakagura remains a great place to learn about sake. The bartenders here are like sommeliers and are glad to guide you through the encyclopedic sake list. The menu is divided into Japan’s 10 sake-brewing regions, each of which is further subdivided by type of sake. Upon telling the bartender that I’m partial to the dry Otokoyama, he recommended Kikuhime,which was quite tasty. At $9 a glass, it was also wallet-friendly, which is good, since sake here ranges from $6 a glass to $68 for a masu of superpremium. Sakagura is well worth it if you take the opportunity to get an education in sake. One of the first things I learned there is that most all of the better ones are served chilledand that and it’s pronounced "sah-kay" not "sah-kee."
Foodwise, Sakagura’s fare consists of small plates, including most of the usual suspects like kuro edamame and onigiri (rice balls). I went with something a bit more unconventional and had a sashimi combo plate consisting of a portion of cold crunchy sea cucumber and some creamy ankimo (monkfish liver). I followed this with an order of tatami iwashi, sheets of dried baby sardines pressed to form a chip of sorts. I ended my meal with a few slices of lovely jack mackerel sashimi, and some more sake of course.
Sakagura has a sister restaurant, Sake Bar Decibel, on East 9th Street (between Second and Third avenues). The shoebox of a kitchen is located behind the bar, where the bartender often serves as cook and deejay. Decibel is well known for its hip music and deep sake selection. Around the corner on Saint Marks Place, the izakaya are loud joints frequented by young hip types, Japanese and otherwise, where the music ranges from the Sex Pistols to gangster rap.
Perhaps the strangest and loudest of the Saint Marks izakaya is the cavernous Kenka. I’m not sure if it’s the giant statue of the mythological tanuki with flashing red eyes, the free cotton candy, the wall of pachinko machines (right), or the $1.50 draft beers that lure customers here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the food. It is passable at best. Along with such typical izakaya fare as yakitori, or grilled skewers, the menu features such oddball items as bull’s penis. As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. This is painfully true of the fare here. I’m not sure if the $6 plate of grilled salted cow tongue I ordered there the other night had been cured and turned into leather or not. Yakitori and rice dishes like curry rice are better options at Kenka.
My friend, William, who’s been frequenting area izakaya since they sprang up in the early '90s, tells me Kenka is meant to be a family-friendly place. Granted they have cotton candy, but since the specials menu sports a pornographic drawing, I’m not sure whether to believe him or not. Japanese music blaring from pole-mounted loudspeakers makes Kenka resemble an annex of the NYU cafeteria, that is if NYU were in a 1940s Kurosawa film. Incidentally, the menu’s front cover features a list of rules. Among them: “no fighting, masturbating, having sex, or drugs.” I find this rather odd since a fellow at the next table told me that Kenka translates to fighting.
Yakitori Taisho and its sister restaurant, Oh! Taisho, present somewhat more civilized experiences. Both feature a typical izakaya menu with such items as okonomiyaki, a fried pancake of sorts made from cabbage and egg mixed with seafood and pork, as well as larger dishes like ramen. But the real draw here is the yakitori, or grilled skewers (right). Counter seating affords a good view of the chefs as grilling up shishito peppers, squids legs tsukune (chicken meatballs), teba (chicken wings) and gyutan (grilled beef tongue), among other things. One of my favorites there is the torikawa (chicken skin), which I always order well done with salt. It’s like the world’s best chicken cracklings.
Further uptown two newer izakaya specializing in chicken yakitori are giving those on Saint Marks stiff competition. I have yet to get into the wildly popular Yakitori Torys. The first time I tried was the day after it was reviewed in the New York Times. So I settled for eating at its sister restaurant, Yakitori Totto. Too bad that, by the time I made it across town, Totto was out of bonchiri (chicken tail) and nankotsu (cartilage). All of the chicken they use is organic, making for some truly succulent skewers. They’ve achieved the impossible with their chicken skin: a crispy exterior and a moist interior. And, it looks like they’ve wound a whole bird’s worth of skin on to one skewer (right). Although they call it a chicken meatball, the shiso-spiked tsukune umejiso is shaped more like a torpedo. No matter, I call it the most delicious chicken kebab I’ve ever had. The shishito tsukune tsume, organic chicken stuffed into fruity hot shishito peppers, was also wonderful. As I sat at the bar, I watched the grill men cook up skewer after skewer through a thick glass wall, no doubt there because they’re cooking on binchotan, a charcoal that burns incredibly hot. I had a glass of Tori Kai, a small-batch shochu made from rice. The delicate flavor was a perfect match for some of the best yakitori I’ve ever had.
Kenka: 25 Saint Marks Place; 212-254-6363
Oh! Taisho: 9 Saint Marks Place; 212-673-1300
Sakagura: 211 East 43rd Street, basement; 212-953-7253
Sake Bar Decibel: 240 East 9th Street; 212-979-2733
Sake Bar Hagi: 152 West 49th Street, basement; 212-764-8549
Village Yokocho: 8 Stuyvesant Street; 212-598-3041
Yakitori Taisho: 5 Saint Marks Place; 212-228-5086
Yakitori Torys: 248 East 52nd Street, 212-813-1800
Yakitori Totto: 251 West 55th Street; 212-245-4555