Perseverance usually pays off, however, and it’s easy to fall in love with the izakaya concept. The literal translation is “stay sake shop” or, less literally, “place for drinking,” but such establishments are equally well known for their food. Typically, the edibles are the Japanese version of tapas and, unlike many international cuisines that migrate here, very little gets lost in translation; the chefs know there’s a bit of a learning curve for Western palates, but they’d rather present these dishes in all of their authentic, rough-around-the-edges glory than Americanize them even the slightest.
That’s a big part of the journey into izakaya, one that rewards the adventurous. The bars themselves can be delightfully divey, but there are some that tilt toward swanky gastropub. Regardless of the décor, the experience promises a respite from sardine-can, standing-room-only drinking venues that are all too familiar. If there’s not an available table or seat at the bar, no one’s allowed to enter. The izakaya is about taking one’s time, relaxing after a hard day and sequestering oneself as far away from the working world as possible.
When I first discovered izakaya culture, I wondered, Why don’t we have more of these in New York? But in fact, the city already had a scene of its own—and, as in Tokyo, it was just a matter of knowing where to look. A decade and a half ago, most New Yorkers’ Japanese experience was limited primarily to sushi bars, but their gradual embrace of more adventurous Asian pub fare has hastened the growth of a bona fide subculture.
“Fifteen years ago, there were only 200 kinds of sake on the market here,” recalls Takahiro Okada, owner/manager of TriBeCa’s Sake Bar Shigure, one of the newer watering holes on the scene, opened just two years ago. “Now there are more than 700 kinds; it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
Shigure’s menu vividly reflects that shift, offering about 50 sake selections, as well as 20 versions of shochu, Japan’s clear, native spirit, typically distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, sugar cane or buckwheat, and averaging 25% ABV. The list also features about 15 beers, all Japanese imports, including many from small producers, and all the spoils of Japan’s craft beer boom. In the mood for a pale ale? Try Yo-Ho Brewing’s Yona Yona. Want something hoppier? Ryujin’s Oze No Yukidoke IPA holds its own against its American influences. The drink menu also lists about 15 reasons Japan has been besting Scotland in many international whiskey competitions, from a 12-year-old Yamazaki single-malt to a blended 21-year-old Taketsuru—whose extended aging imparts hints of banana. The bar also boasts a range of signature cocktails, such as the Suzukaze, a bright concoction of Kinmiya shochu, muddled celery and Fuji apple.
If you’re new to sake and shochu and not sure what to try first, your food can guide you. Shochu is a palate cleanser and works well with fried dishes like Satsuma-age (often a Shigure daily special), a classic savory deep-fried cake of ground whitefish meat, eggs, onions and carrots popularized in the Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Sake’s better with more delicate fare like Katsuo Tataki, lightly seared slices of moderately fatty bonito with tart, citrusy ponzu sauce and onions—though you can’t go wrong with Ginga Kogen white ale with mild mango notes.
“New York’s Japanese food culture has improved a lot… it’s becoming the same or better quality than Japan’s,” says Okada.Helping to advance that revolution for the past decade has been Umi No Ie, a 40-seat East Village pub, whose décor alternates between shrine to Japanese drinking culture (modern and vintage sake, shochu and beer ads mounted on brick walls) and seaside motif (fishing nets bookending the eight-stool bar). Regulars know to request one of two low tatami-mat-style tables near the entrance of Umi No Ie, whose name translates to “beach house.” Like the Japanese establishments that inspired it, its graffiti-enhanced façade is hidden among a few unwelcoming storefronts on a mostly residential block. “It’s a little secret,” teases Mutsumi Tanaka, who co-owns Umi No Ie with chef Mika Okui.
In addition to stocking one of the city’s largest shochu selections, Umi No Ie also promises authentic Japanese home cooking. A prime example of that familial culinary tradition is its signature dish, tender, slow-cooked pork belly—two large, fatty, melt-in-your-mouth chunks in a golden-brown broth. Then, the sweet potato shochu Kaikouzu cleanses the palate for a plate of Sunomono (steamed octopus served cold with seaweed and cucumber in a homemade vinegar dressing).
“We have a shochu tasting menu and they can try three different kinds,” says Tanaka. Shochu novices shouldn’t shy away from ordering an entire bottle; if you don’t finish it, just John Hancock the label and Umi No Ie will hang on to it for future visits.
A handful of blocks away and identifiable only by an illuminated radio-studio-style “On Air” sign at the entrance, subterranean Sake Bar Decibel bills itself as “New York’s original sake bar.” It dates back to 1993 when the area south of 14th Street and east of 3rd Avenue was still in the early stages of gentrification. The neighborhood changed, but Saké Bar Decibel retains a seedy, starving-artist vibe. Its concrete floor is damp and cracked, connecting graffiti-adorned walls. The host emerges from the shadows to usher you past an incongruous candy-cane-colored rope to the back seating area, where votive candles and a red izakaya lantern are the sole light sources.
Something you’re not likely to see: people standing.
“In Japan, we like to sit down and have a drink,” explains Decibel manager Ken Arii. New Yorkers are accustomed to cramming into standing-room-only bars. “Sometimes they’re a little weird about it,” Arii continues. “But when most people start drinking sake, they realize it’s for relaxing.”
Decibel’s drinks list features nearly 100 sakes; they are the star of the menu. A medium-dry, relatively reasonable offering like Jokigen Junmai Ginjo is a solid gateway to premium sake, and versatile enough to pair with delicacies, like Ei Hire. These chewy strips of dried stingray fin have a consistency somewhere between beef jerky and pork cracklins and exude a mildly pungent “fishy” flavor tempered by Japanese mayonnaise. Admittedly, Ei Hire skirts the realm of “acquired taste,” but it’s worth trying.
A subway ride away, Sake Bar Hagi, at 49th and 7th in the Theater District, is an oasis amid the madness of Times Square. Like Decibel, it’s cloistered underground in a tight, low-ceilinged space, but the atmosphere reads more diner than dungeon. Don’t even think about leaving without trying one of the great classics of Japanese street food, takoyaki: soft, squishy, savory-to-slightly-sweet battered wheat-flour balls stuffed with chopped octopus, baked and then topped with Worcestershire-like sauce, crispy bonito flakes and dried seaweed. Junmai Daiginjo tends to be the priciest of the premium sake grades, but Hagi offers some reasonable ones to try. The floral, fruity Ginban is a great get, available by the glass.
About six blocks south and as many avenues east lies one of the more (relatively) upscale izakaya experiences, Sakagura, which is arguably the least accessible in the city. Locating it requires walking through the generic-looking lobby of an office building, past a security desk, around a corner and then down a rather institutional stairwell. There are no signs or arrows for guidance.
The décor evokes a traditional Japanese village; bamboo and wood offer a nice counterpoint to the painted brick walls, the only reminders that this is a basement. It’s renowned for its stock of sake, intimidating in both volume (there are about 200) and price. Luckily, Sakagura offers tasting menus with optional (but worth the splurge) sake pairings. A typical lunch taster includes an array of fresh sashimi, crispy shrimp and green pepper tempura, grilled black cod, cooked-to-order steak teriyaki and dessert.
Interestingly, T.I.C. Group, the company behind Decibel (as well as several other Japanese eateries in the city), also owns Sakagura, its absolute visual antithesis. It’s those two extremes that the next wave of izakayas, led by Sake Bar Shigure, try to reconcile. For that reason, Okada has chosen to distance his TriBeCa bar from the “i” word.
“We don’t call this place an izakaya, we call it a ‘sake bar,’” he says. “For Japanese people, ‘izakaya’ can mean so many different kinds of styles. But in New York City, some people imagine a place that is casual and reasonably priced or fancy and expensive. If I say ‘izakaya-style,’ I think the customer gets confused. “
What they do have in common? A lack of any obvious markings for the casual passerby. Okada admits, “I’m still deciding whether I need to have a bigger sign or if it should be hiding.”