Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Sakagura is hard to find.
Sakagura is probably the best known - and best hidden - sake bar in the U.S., if not the world. The non-descript office building it's located in on E. 43rd Street is now even harder to find, since it's shrouded in scaffolding.
At the door, a discreet Japanese character is the only sign it's there. Once you step into the building, you think you've made a mistake. It looks like the lobby of an office building, complete with security desk. On one stairwell door, you find the twin of the mark on the street. Behind it, a lone hostess desk - clearly for use on busier evenings - shares a niche with a fire hose.
Down you go, into the basement. At the end of a dark and dingy hall, you step into a Japanese fantasy-land.
Wood and bamboo, bonsai trees, little candles and - everywhere - sake casks and sake bottles.
It's a tough ticket, and reservations are a must, but as a single diner, I can usually snag a table at the bar, and I was in luck. I got a seat, and a nice waitress to help me choose from the vast library of sake available.
I felt a little foolish because I was not able to tell her any favorites I'd had. I asked her to select for me some nigorizaki, which is an unfiltered sake cloudy with rice solids. Nigorizaki is sweet and flowery, and is served quite cold.
She let me sample a few choices, and I chose Kamoizumi "Summer Snow." It was quite intense, almost fruity, and perfumed. It's a good choice for sake novices like me. The waitress helpfully told me which prefecture each sample came from; "Summer Snow" is from Hiroshima prefecture.
Sakagura is an izakaya, a drinking establishment that served bar snacks along with drinks. Although here both the snacks and the drinks were exquisite.
I chose three items. The first to arrive was Onsen Tamago, which was a bowl of cold dashi broth, rich with flavor, in which floated uni, or sea urchin roe, ikura, or salmon roe, and a lightly poached small egg. The uni was sweet and ocean-flavored as I expected. The salmon roe was amazing, like little jewels that burst with flavor. The poached egg's yolk burst forth when I touched it with chopsticks, and it clouded the rich cool broth, adding a rich, viscous texture. The combination of flavors, the coolness, the textures were so compelling I drank every drop.
Then came some hirame sashimi, a white-fleshed fish, garnished with a grated daikon and ponzu relish. Delicate and tasty.
My third order was called maguro tartare on the menu. Maguro is fatty tuna; this was chopped and mixed with scallion and perhaps a little soy sauce for flavor; it was pressed into a small hockey-puck shape and garnished on top with flying fish roe flavored with yuzu (a citrus fruit) and black caviar.
I adore the sensation of eating fish roe and feeling the little grains burst in my bite, and this was both fun and delicious.
I had thought I might order another item, but the intensity of the maguro, plus the fact that it was a solid chunk of pure protein, really filled me up and satisfied me. I sipped the last of the sake, this time a daijingo sake called Yuki no Boshi, from Akita prefecture.
I don't normally get dessert, but the waitress brought me the menu. I asked her which choice she'd recommend between a millefeuille with pear and a creme brulee flavored with black sesame, and she urged me to choose the creme brulee.
It was yet another incredible taste. A crackled caramel crust over the creamy custard; a nugget of ice cream swirled with black sesame. All topped by a curled tuille, studded with the black seeds.
The custard was the color of wet cement, a little unusual, but the whole was infused by the caramelized sugar and the rich flavor of sesame seeds.
A secret place - hidden away - like a treasure. Search it out next time you're in New York City. But shhhhh! Don't tell anyone else!