If you live in a major city outside of Japan, you may have noticed the phenomenon of sake bars, pubs, izakaya or nomiya sprouting like kinoko mushrooms after a spring rain. Exports of sake have more than doubled since 2002, according to the Japan Shochu and Sake Makers Association, a lot of it appearing on the shelves of these sake-focused establishments.
Some would argue that none of the booming international sake scenes are as lively and varied as that of New York City. Below is a guide to where to drink sake in Manhattan right now, ranging in style from the boisterous to the cozy.
This Lower East Side establishment aptly bills itself as a “modern izakaya and sake bar.” There is no overt Japanese décor except for the sake bottles themselves. Owners Tanner Fahl and Natalie Graham are both half-Japanese Hawaiians who wanted to open a place specializing in sake and shochu, but in a modern American setting. General Manager Jamie Graves, an American fluent in Japanese and a prize-winning sake sommelier, adds to the crossover vibe.
Graves, who created the 60-bottle list, decided to take it from broad and comprehensive to “small, opinionated and focused.” His approach encourages and rewards thoughtful imbibing. For sakes available by the glass (20 types, ranging from $8 to $15), instead of organized by grade, from junmai daiginjo to honjozo, there are six different taste categories; spice, earth, clean, cloudy, fresh, and fruit. It’s a helpful conceit for guests striving to affix taste memories to labels
Two other non-bottle categories include sakes that are enhanced by warming (sold by the carafe) and nama sake, or unpasteurized sake (sold by glass, carafe or bottle). One nama standout was a complex and lively Seikyo Omachi junmai ginjo ($17, $51, $85). Another inspired touch is the creative flights. The “History of Sake” ($28), guides you from a recreated sake recipe from 1712 (Tamagawa “Time Machine”), through the “clean and dry sake evolution in the 1970s” (Hakkaisan junmai ginjo), to the complex and layered sake that have gained favor more recently (Dewasansan junmai ginjo). The second flight consists of just one of Graves’s favorite sakes, a rich, slighty nutty Tamagawa tokubetsu junmai, served chilled, room temperature and heated, to show off different aspects of its complexity. For the deep-pocketed, Sakamai offers four “reserve” rare bottles, including a Maboroshi Black junmai daiginjo genshu ($360) and a Dashichi Myoka Rangyoku ($750).
Chef Takanori Akiyama’s refined menu is a mix of Japanese and Asian-inflected western small plates. Rich, small bites like the nori-wrapped miso-infused cream cheese and anchovy give way to the umami bomb of charred broccolini, parmesan crisps and smoked soy sauce, or grilled octopus with gochujang and salted kelp.
157 Ludlow St.
New York, NY 10002
Serial restaurateur Bon Yagi’s idea back in 1997 was to recreate the sakagura his uncle owned (and the site of childhood hide-and-seek games) in Ibaraki Prefecture. He filled his high-ceilinged basement space near Grand Central Station with a long blond wood tasting bar, a faux pounded dirt (doma) floor, restrooms modeled on giant hooped sake casks, and seating areas topped with reed-fringed eaves to evoke the various warehouses of the kura. Cool jazz on the sound system brings the room back to America.
Sakagura boasts the largest selection of sakes in the city at close to 200. Two certified sake sommeliers and a knowledgeable wait-staff will guide you through the voluminous list, which ranges from $8 glasses (Tamagawa tokubetsu junmai, Daishichi kimoto honjozo) to a $1,520 bottle of Daishichi Grand Cuvée, (usually on the menu in the fall, but pre-order it at other times). Five sizes of pours are offered, from glasses to full bottles, maximizing tasting options. Carafes come as pretty spouted glass containers nestled in a pine bucket of ice decorated with a seasonal floral spray.
Sakagura’s menu is designed to pair well with sake. Cold courses include silky sashimi, hirame ponzu (thin slices of fluke sashimi topped with grated daikon radish and citron vinaigrette), hiyayakko (cold tofu topped with ginger and scallion and generously showered with dried bonito flakes). To match fuller-bodied sakes, hot dishes of rich and savory gyu miso nikomi (shredded beef back ribs stewed in miso) and grilled tilefish or cod are also available.
211 E. 43rd St.
New York, NY 10017
While Sakagura is like an airy, buzzing beer hall, Yopparai on the Lower East Side is small, dark-paneled and cozy, a snug treasure box lined with exquisite sake-related antiques. You have to ring a bell, speakeasy style, and a pocket door will discreetly slide open to allow entry. Owner and certified sake sommelier Gaku Shibata took inspiration from his favorite Tokyo sake pub, Aburaya; the pub has repaid the compliment by sending the owner’s son, Junya Miura, to work as Yopparai’s head chef.
Meaning “drunkard” in Japanese, Yopparai is more likely to put you in a mellow mood with a well-rounded 50-bottle sake list and small dishes to match. Start with a clean, elegant Tedorigawa Iki-Na-Onna (“Sophisticated Woman”) daiginjo, which pairs beautifully with glistening orbs of gold leaf-flecked salmon roe, acompanied by a cedar masu box (charcoal heated from below) filled with stacked nori wrappers. Another good match is the salty punch of Yopparai’s excellent karasumi (dried red mullet roe).
A rich, slightly funky Daishichi (“Big Seven”) junmai kimoto from Fukushima, one of Shibata’s personal favorites, pairs well with a bowl of the house oden, a satisfying simmered dish that includes daikon, fish cake, boiled egg, and vegetables. Matured for a full year to allow the full effect of the kimoto method to become evident, the Daishichi also takes on a slightly yellowish tinge in the process. While Shibata favors this type of “full-boded, dry, and heavy sake,” other choices include the complex floral hit of the Kokuryu “Black Dragon” ginjo from Fukui or the unfiltered Shiragiku “White Chrysanthemum” from Okayama. While Yopparai is geared toward the sake-focused guest, its sister restaurant, the casual izakaya Azasu, also on the Lower East side, offers shochu and whiskey as well.
151 Rivington St.
New York, NY 10002
En Japanese Brasserie
Housed in a former furniture showroom, En’s gorgeous space features large plate-glass windows, soaring ceilings, and handsome ranma (carved wooden transoms). Its 60-bottle sake list changes seasonally.
This is the place to go for seasonal nama, or unpasteurized sakes. The Narutotai ginjo is available year round. General manager Michelle Hand says, “We typically have from four to eight hiyaoroshi (sake that has been pasturized in spring, allowed to mature, and shipped in autumn).” This past spring, En featured seven different nama, as well as a nama flight: Ryujin junmai daiginjo, Harushika junmai daiginjo and Kamikokoro tokubetsu junmai genshu. Hand’s personal favorite nama were the Harushika junmai ginjo and Ryujin junmai daiginjo.
En’s menu includes three different kaiseki sets ($110-$200, price including optional sake and shochu pairings), one of which is vegan, or you can order from the large and varied á la carte menu, which includes a delicious house-made tofu or house-cured karasumi, the latter with an optional pairing of Kitaya junmai from Fukuoka Prefecture ($24 with pairing).
435 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10014