Spring Sipping

Spring Sipping

Four local izakaya run the gamut of style and selection


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2009

<i>Marie Wanibe</i>

Marie Wanibe

Just a five minute stroll from Roppongi Crossing toward Nogizaka, Sasano is a little bit hidden, a little bit fashionable and a little bit traditional. In fact, everything here comes off a little bit understated, which belies how tasty all the food and drink is.

The interior, atmosphere, food and sake seem incongruous with the neighborhood, but that fact is forgotten once you sit down. You’d never think that so much attention to detail and sheer creativity would go into the food in a location like this. The big aquarium behind the ten-person counter is more than just for show: it is the source of your evening’s sashimi. Try to top that for freshness.

The sake selection is outstanding as well, with a wide range of popular stuff complemented by a dollop of hidden gems. Some popular entries include Juyondai “Honmaru” (if in stock!), rich Denshu and delicate Dassai, as well as the lusciously pear-laced and mischievously hard-to-find Higan from Niigata.
The counter is nice, albeit it faces only one way. The tables behind that are a bit small, so perhaps the large-ish zashiki in the back is your best bet.

2F, 9-6-23 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3475-6055. Open Mon-Fri 6pm-1am (last order), Sat 5-11pm, closed Sun & hols. Nearest stn: Nogizaka, exit 3.

Everything about Kushikoma is different: the layout, the location, and the character of the owner, Mr. Obayashi. Long-haired, bearded and wafuku-clad, he has a knack for knowing about fantastic sake just before they get famous. That alone is a reason to drink here. If you are a Juyondai fan, Kushikoma stocks up to 14 of them—in fact, this was the very first place in Tokyo to serve that vaunted brew from Yamagata. Just remember you’re not the only one in town interested in it, so the stock may vary from day to day.

Gorgeously presented, slightly offbeat, yet solidly sake-friendly food dishes are the mainstay here, and there is plenty to choose from among the seasonally changing lists. The menu tends to feature a wide range of vegetable selections prepared in myriad ways. Daily selections might include luscious homemade yudofu or mizu nasu asazuke (lightly pickled eggplant), which is an incredible match with their sake. Portions do tend to be small-ish, though.

Kushikoma gets quite busy, and as such you may not be coddled, but if you’re into food and sake, the staff pick up on that and respond to it. If you have a larger group, reserving the very cool second floor room, or part of it, is highly recommended.

1-33-25 Kita-Otsuka, Toshima-ku. Tel: 03-3917-6657. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-midnight, closed Sundays. Nearest stn: Otsuka, north exit. www.kushikoma.com

Rakushun Dining Zaian
This place rocks. Alarmingly tasty food, a well-thought-out sake list, and reasonable prices see to that. As you enter, there is a standing bar area for those who want just a nibble and one drink (perish the thought!), and a counter for those who like to be close to the kitchen action. The back of the restaurant has several four-person booths with hori-kotatsu for your feet (left). It’s all a bit funky, with totally irrelevant art here and there to keep your eyes busy as well.

What the basement location lacks in natural light it makes up for in comfort, warmth and ambience. The food is deceivingly simple—for the most part, it looks like typical izakaya fare—but everything seems to pack some deep, complex flavor. The wonderful sake list varies with the owner’s whims. Most of it is moderately popular but all of it good. Select at random; you can’t go wrong. Even easier is the three-glass sampler (“Kikizake set”) for ¥880.

B1, 1-31-1 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku. Tel: 03-5957-2207. Open daily 11:30am-2pm and 5pm-5am. Nearest stn: Ikebukuro, east exit. http://zaian.mo-blog.jp

Kanda Shinpachi
A very traditional sake pub in a very traditional neighborhood, Kanda Shinpachi is a bastion of old Tokyo. Besides the list of 120 fantastic sake, this might be the only place in Japan that carries the entire run from Shinkame, that wonderfully idiosyncratic brewer from Saitama. Shinkame sake are solid, tart, a bit mature, and of the junmai style only; none have added alcohol.

The pub itself is of very traditional construction, with simple tables and a long counter on the first floor, and private rooms (which must be reserved) on the second and third. Sashimi and nabe are the specialties of the house, with fugu an important menu item when in season. Everything, down to the vessels from which customers drink, has been carefully chosen. An evening here is, for the most part, quiet and serene, at least as long as the Shinkame lasts.

2-9-1 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3254-9729. Open Mon-Sat 4-11pm, closed Sun & hols. Nearest stn: Kanda, east exit. www.kanda-shinpachi.com

Of these four pubs, Zaian is the liveliest yet also the most relaxed, Kushikoma the most interesting, Sasano the classiest, and Shinpachi the most authentic. But you can’t go wrong with any of them, or the sake they serve.