New York’s Own Tokyo Bar

tokyo_logo.jpgEver wonder what it might be like to jump inside a comic book like that 80’s A-ha Video? Well, me neither – but you can experience it nonetheless with a trip to Tribeca’s Tokyo Bar (277 Church Street New York, NY 10013). The soaring walls and ceiling in this place are covered with comic book graphics and splashes of neon thrown in for good measure. Even the bathrooms are covered head to toe in manga. It’s an interesting study of Japanese pop aesthetic and it creates a pretty darn cool backdrop for sake enjoyment.

wakatake_daiginjo.jpgScott and I went on a lark to this new place for an early evening dinner and we were thrilled by our experience. The sake list at Tokyo Bar is solid. You can check out the sakes they offer here. Highlights include: Tsukasabotan Junmai Daiginjo, Suigei Junmai and Sawanoi Ohkarakuchi Junmai.

I ordered an old favorite of mine the Wakatake Junmai Daiginjo. This sake is really a gem and a terrific sake for starting out with sake enjoyment – it’ll get you hooked! Light and smooth with a small burst of floral.The food at Tokyo Bar was billed as “New Japanese comfort food”. The fried chicken was some of the best we ever had. funky_pop_neon.jpgScott loved his Japanese curry dish, though it was too spicy for me. The pacing of the food at our early evening meal was leisurely and relaxed which we really enjoyed.

The only fumble Tokyo bar made the whole night was serving sake in a wooden masu. As we were being seated, i noticed a neighboring table was being served sake in a cedar masu. Alarm bells started to ring in my head. However traditional, I don’t recommend this for any premium brew as the wood smell and flavor can permeate the sake in short order. bathroom_walls.jpgThis may be fine for cheap and easy taru, but if you’re paying $24 for a glass of super premium Daiginjo, who wants that? I asked the waiter when I placed my order to bring the sake in a glass and it was totally fine. But I worry about folks who don’t know to ask and have a “wooden” experience with their sake. Masus are fun, but the plastic ones are best – they have the look without interfering with the flavor or nose. Be sure to ask for your premium sake in a wine glass when in doubt.

Ok, despite my masu-bashing tirade, Tokyo Bar overall was really wonderful. this is the type of Japanese place I love to go to: great interior, friendly staff, yummy food and a thoughtful sake list. What more could a boy ask for? It’s enough to make me want to jump inside the comic book to stay.

Sake Diplomacy

Ambassador2.jpgAttending a sake tasting at the Japanese Consul General’s private residence was a unique experience.

Upon arriving, we went through security and found ourselves in the grand foyer of a town house that looked like it belonged to a robber baron of the Golden Age… with a touch of Liaisons Dangereuses decor thrown in. Think wide marble staircases, mirrored doors with rococo gold trim, and ornate crystal chandeliers.

beautiful_kimono.jpgThe Event was sponsored by Akita Sake Connoisseurs club and this was their most unique event to date. This tasting was like none I had ever been to. There was sake tasting, to be sure, but also speeches, Akita food tasting, a small display of cultural wares from Akita and multiple music performances. Where to start, where to start! With the sake of course…

Kiichironosake.jpgThis Akita event had many well known Akita Sakes and some unavailable in the States. Among the unavailable sakes was the delightful Kiichiro No Sake Tokubetsu Junmai. Using underground water from Kaji river, Kikusui Shuzo makes this fantastic stuff. Sakagura Sake Sommelier Chizoko-san recommended this sake highly and I enjoyed the taste. It was clean with a surprising depth.

Some delicious but more widely available Akita sakes included Akita Shuzo’s Akitabare Suirakuten Daiginjo, which came highly recommended by Asami-san from World Sake Imports.

henry_miho.jpgHenry Seidel and Miho-san representing Joto Sake also had some fine offerings. My favorite is their Yuki No Bosha Junmai Ginjo Nigori. This sake seems like a full & think nigori at first glance, but it’s whisper light on the palate… very drinkable and quite delicious. It’s probably a good thing they only sell it in small bottles here. That helps me with “portion control”.

Prestige sake was sampling a delightful Nama sake from Aramasa Shuzo called Akitaryu Hiyaoroshi Junmai Ginjo. It’s a seasonal autumn release that had the lively but grounded essence we’ve come to know and love in the fall namas.

ambassador_sakurai.jpgOnce the sakes were sampled, the evening was in full swing, Ambassador Sakurai held a short speech to welcome everyone and extol the virtues of sake. That man has got my vote! One thrilling surprise was the musical performances. Both western and Japanese classical music was played to dramatic effect in this elegant setting. I realized more clearly than ever that drinking sake does make you a happy person. So, it goes without saying that there is no better way to help along diplomatic relations of any sort, then some friendly conversation and some premium nihon-shu. Kanpai to that.

Hibino Star Sighting!

banner.jpgMy trip to Japan was exhilarating, but exhausting. After days of struggling to find my way around around Kyoto and embarrassing myself trying to use broken Japanese, I was glad to be back in my crowded, loud, but favorite city: New York, baby! Still, I didn’t want to leave Kyoto totally behind. What’s a samurai to do? Go to Hibino, of course!

obanzai.jpgHibino (333 Henry Street, Brooklyn, 718-260-8052) is a Kyoto style restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and one of the crown Jewels of the neighborhood. They serve delicious sushi and sake, but what makes Hibino ‘Kyoto style’? One word: “Obanzai”. Also known as Obanzai Ryori, Obanzai is really just small side dishes prepared daily with elegantly appointed ingredients such as tofu, boiled daikon and eggplants. It’s a distinct style of Japanese tapas that reflect the refined tastes of Japan’s most historic city.

dassai50.jpgUpon arriving, friendly Manager Hinata Sato-san seated us at the bar but soon came over to ask me if I was Mr. Urban Sake! I thought, wow… I’m really becoming famous! Soon the paparazzi will be chasing me and Linsey Lohan down the red carpet! Well…not quite. As it turns out Sato-san reminded me that I’m friends with Hibino Restaurant on Myspace. Oh well, it wasn’t quite my 15 mins of fame. It was more like 15 seconds, but who’s counting. Time for a drink.

The Hibino sake menu is consice but solid. Here is a sampling of the brews that had to offer on the evening I was there:

  • Tamano Hikari Junmai Ginjo (from Kyoto!)
  • Masumi Karakuchi Ki Ippon Junmai Ginjo
  • Dassai 50
  • Dewazakura Oka Ginjo
  • Diamond Dust Nigori
  • Ugo No Tsuki Junmai Ginjo
  • Born Muroka namagenshu
  • Born Tokusen Junmai Daiginjo

tofu.jpgLots of fun and interesting choices, but since this was my decompress from Japan night, I went with the sake brand I enjoyed there on my trip to Yamaguchi, Dassai. The Dassai 50 is a terrific sake and a real value given what your getting. Having gotten a view of life at the brewery, I have a real appreciation for the care and effort it takes to create a consistent taste in a sake. So many variables could effect the flavor. Dassai came through with flying colors as usual.

The Obanzai and sushi are both really good here, but not to be missed on the Hibino menu is the freshly homemade tofu. It’s kinda unreal how good it is… and I’m not usually a tofu fanatic ( anyone?). Please try it. you’ll like it!

Oh, and if you happen to see me on the red carpet sometime during my remaining 14 mins and 45 seconds of fame, be sure to say hello. No autographs, please.

Shopping for Sake: Isetan, the Musical

chillin_at_isetan.jpgAfter my adventures in Yamaguchi, it was back to Kyoto for a final few days in Japan. After a week of thrilling ‘firsts’ (first shinto ceremony, first bullet train, first brewery visit…) it was time for another very important “first”… my first visit to a Japanese Sake Shop! Attached to the huge Kyoto train station, is a department store called “Isetan“. As is the case in many Japanese department stores, they have a huge lower level space dedicated to food with aisle after aisle of prepared take away delights. I’d never really seen anything quite like it.

I was happy to discover that Isetan had a sizable sake section! Seeing row after row of sake bottles on display on wide well lit shelves, I really had thissake_selection_isetan.jpg feeling that I had reached the mothership! um, I was kinda in Sake heaven. I mean, you can’t really go to The Cellar at Macy’s and take your pick from 300+ sakes! The sales clerk was probably laughing at this wide eyed gaijin running from shelf to shelf fawning over each bottle. If my visit to Isetan was a musical, this is where I would break into song, dance around and put on the big show-stopping production number! well, luckily, I was able to refrain from singing, but I was singing inside! Isetan had a good selection of 300 ml, 720ml and 1.8L bottles.

cute_fugu_one_cuo.jpgIf anything I was surprised at the number of 1.8L (called “ishobin”) bottles for sale. In the States, this size tends to be comparatively rare… and unfortunately for me, ishobin are not suitcase friendly! Since Isetan is attached to a major train station, there were many ‘gift giving’ friendly sakes, small bottles with extra special wrapping geared towards giving as an “omiage”. As is the custom in Japan, when people travel, friends back home might expect returning travelers to bring them a small token gift from the place they have visited. So, if you’re at Kyoto station ready to return home and you forgot your Omiage, Isetan food court has you covered! And what better gift than sake!

Isetan, not only catered to sake-loving travelers in search of gifts, but also those who may want a little sake somthin’ somthin’ for themselves! Enter the “one cup”. If you ever needed any proof that Japan is an awesome place worth of admiration, the invention of the “one cup” is it. even_more_ishobin.jpgThere was a good selection of cute one cup sakes here that are perfect for sipping on the bullet train as the countryside flies by at 175mph. One cup sake has become a bit of a trend in recent years, and many breweries have released their sake in cute, well-designed single serving cups that just scream out to be collected.

After I had loaded up on some (portable) sake to bring home from Isetan, I had time to hit one more shop, so I headed out by subway in search of another sake shop! I ended up finding Meishukan Takimoto. When I was actually there, I didn’t know the name, as I can’t read the kanji, sake_shop_x.jpgso I called it Sake Shop “X”. Sake shop “X” was pretty different from Isetan. There was sake everywhere, but I would 85% of it was 1.8L ishobin size. Also interesting that most of the sake here was not refrigerated.

I wanted to talk to the sales staff and introduce myself and explain about my blog and samurai ceremony, but I chickened out at the last minute due to lack of faith in my ability to communicate in Japanese. I did work up the nerve to ask about a very unique package of sake I found. Holy Capri Sun, Batman, this packet is perfect for the lunch box. bullseye.jpgI also used my visit to Sake Shop “X” to buy some nihonshu accoutrement. I remember John Gaunter saying in sake class that the bullseye sake cups were hard to come by in the States. So I found a large size one to bring home with me. This is the kind used in most judging sake competitions. cool, eh? I also picked up a couple small bullseye cups, too. Well, at this point I was getting weighed down with lots of sake and I needed to head back to my hotel. If I was going to fit this sake into my suitcase, it would take a serious song and dance routine.