Monday, August 13, 2012


Last week I had dinner at Sakagura, a top Japanese go-to restaurant for business elites, mostly because of its infamous sake. Conspicuously located in the basement of a building in Midtown, we pondered to ourselves whether this is indeed a "decent" place as described on Yelp.

Do not enter employee resting area (covered with bamboo walls)

After two flights of shady stairs, we were greeted by a plaque that says their name in Chinese - which  translates to something to the like of "Sanctuary of Alcohol" on top of a bamboo gate (that reminds me of an ancient prison door).

The entire decor was very traditional and very in keeping with the sake (alcohol) theme, with wine vats stacked atop on another in almost every corner.

We made a reservation for 6pm, and the lady said to arrive within 15 min or else it would be cancelled. We rolled in around 6:08, which is just in time. It was hard to see why they implemented that policy when the rest of the tables in the reservation lounge were empty (but had the reserved sign up).

I really liked their traditional decor with wooden tables, small flower table settings, and a bamboo matte menu.

While waiting for our final guest, we took rounds going to the washroom. Just like the entrance, it was conspicuously hidden as to camoflage into the wooden panels that greeted guests when they first stepped into the restaurant . Had the waiter not opened the door, I would have never realized it was there!

Perhaps the funniest part of this restaurant was that there was a letter table (and a chair!) for you to sit down, read a book, write a few letters to your loved ones....all the while enjoying the amenities of the restroom facilities.

The toilet, mind you, is fully automated with a seat-warming function and bidet tool, just like the originals in Japan.

Even the sink is zen with floating candles atop garden stones (I want this at home!).

After coming back from the restroom, the waiter supplied all of us with warm hand towels to clean our hands. I could already tell that its service was impeccable.

After waiting half an hour, our last guest finally arrived. He was stuck in traffic just three avenues to the restaurant, but it was crosstown during rush hour, so a 5 min cab ride turned out to half an hour. Bummer, because we had a 2 hour reservation, so it cut our eating/socializing time by a chunk.

While the guys chatted, we started picking out some food. Being the only one who read English and wasn't chatting, I was given the daunting task to order. I must have perused the menu five times before deciding. I apologized in advance for not ordering correctly (to which our Italian friend said "never be sorry for ordering").

We couldn't pick the exciting entrees like stone-heated rice, because it simply took too long to prepare. So we settled with a lot of appetizers/tapas.

By a lot, I mean half the menu. We started with six dishes - a cold udon noodle, tile fish, fried almond shrimp balls, assorted veggies, tempura tofu, and a grilled beef dish.

To my surprise (and horror), the waiter kindly informed me that it wasn't enough for 4 people, as these were tapas style. I felt my jaws drop a little when I heard it. I told him that we'd start with these and see where we end up.

Inaniwa Udon Noodle with Ume (plum paste)

The service was quite expedient - after 10 min, they began serving four out of six of the dishes. The udon noodles with plum paste came first - it was served in a bowl the size of the bowls I have at home, reasonable for one person's portions.

The taste was pretty standard - what you would normally except out of soba noodles - cold, sticky, chewy. It tastes particularly nice with the mild soy sauce they provide. But skip the ume (plum paste) - it was so sour that when I ate a small slice my face turned into a lemon.

Amadai Saikyo Yaki - Grilled fillets of tile fish steeped in saikyo miso

But the tile fish in comparison - oh man I thought it was at least three slices, but nope, this is just one fillet of tile fish. (But it was plural in the menu!) At least it came with a really delicately crafted lemon slice in the shape of a snail.

Artful Delight

The taste was right on - fresh fish that smelled and tasted like the ocean, plus grilled to soysauce perfection. No wonder it came in such a small size to control the taste and cooking. It was so tender that we pulled it apart with our chopsticks.

Ebi Shinjo - deep fried shrimp balls covered with sliced almonds

Next came the shrimp balls. What can I say about this one? It looks as appetizing as it tastes. Crunchy on the outside, absolutely tender on the inside - it was like fried food heaven!

The contrast between the crunchiness and tenderness was sharp, which is why I liked this dish for its ying-yang balance.

Chikuzen Ni - Assorted cooked roots, vegetables and chicken

Our veggie dish - though it didn't look that appealing - turned out amazing as well. It's simmered in a slightly sweet sauce so that the root veggies soak up the broth nicely. You can tell by the colors that these veggies were fresh and steamed to just the right amount (or else the green peas will start turning dark and wilt). I really liked the root veggies and the thick juicy mushrooms.

Gedashi Tofu - Tofu coated in a light batter and deep fried, served with soy sauce infused broth

I didn't get a chance to try the tofu dish, but my friends said it was pretty good, probably because of the crispy tempura coating.

By now we had too many small plates accumulating on our table (since we shared all these dishes), so the waiter had to clear a few for the chef d'oeuvre - the stone grilled steak. (He also took every opportunity to ask if we wanted more food, because the last orders have to come in 15 min before our reservation time, and he also said it wasn't enough food).

This came in a sizzling hot small stone, and a few slices of raw beef steak,with soy sauce and sea salt on the side. The waiter came over to show us how to work the grill - basically you take a block of the fat - which looks a lot like butter, rub it on the stone grill, and then place the meat over it. You can hear the sizzle and crackle of the meat as it is cooking. About 2 min on each side, and serve immediately.

Notice the snail on top?

You have to cook all the meat immediately though because the stone gets cold after 15 min. We had to get a new stone because ours died out on us just before we finished cooking. We used about half of the lard cube.

The meat was intensely tender and fresh. You almost don't need to dip it in soy sauce to savour its natural flavor. Our Italian friend was thoroughly impressed by this dish, both the uniqueness of cooking and the authenticity of the taste. The best of hands-on cooking on the most Zen-like plate setting I've ever seen.

By now we were about 1/2 full - the waiter was right - we had to order more dishes. Since none of us ate anything raw, that immediately eliminated half of our menu choices. So I went on choosing everything else on the menu that I haven't ordered. I really wanted to try the Gyutan Yawaraka Ni, or beef tongue stew in miso served with slices of daikon, taro, spinach and shiitake. Thankfully, my friend stopped me from ordering that in consideration that half our party was vegetarian and our Italian friend probably wouldn't appreciate the beef tongue.

So I went for some safer options, like the taro, eggplant and shiitake mushroom tempura and fried donut potato balls.

Satoimo Iridash - Taro, eggplant, shiitake mushrooms fried in a light batter served in broth

This was an extremely funny dish because the light batter coating the taro and veggies started crackling when it was served, so it looked as if the dish were alive. I really liked the taste of taro because it's got a mountainous flavor which sets it apart from its common potato counterparts.

Jaga Dango - Mashed Potatoes coated in sweet donut batter

That is not to say that I did not enjoy the mashed potatoes fried in donut batter. This was a side + dessert, because the coating was pancake batter and the inside was fluffy (though tasteless) potatoes. I had to serve mine with some soy sauce because there weren't any ketchup (and I for once wasn't about to ask for any).

We also ordered the egg custard served with chicken, shrimp and gingko nuts in thickened Ponzu sauce. It looked too pretty to eat, so we set it aside for the last. The mushroom was so neatly arranged with floating scallions bits, so much so that it looked like a bonsai garden.

Despite its mild appearance, the taste was way too soy-saucy. I know that egg custards usually have no taste, but you can't put this much soy sauce in it just so it will. Our Italian friend was confused as to how to eat this dish, because it was the size of a teacup. We were given very tiny wooden spoons, so everyone had a spoonful. There was about one baby shrimp in the middle, and the chicken was probably clumped at the bottom.

Chawanmushi - Steamed egg custard with chicken, shrimp and gingko nuts in thickened Ponzu sauce

Someone suggested ordering sushi to fill up the Italian friend with something of substance, but they actually didn't have any. When you hear a Japanese restaurant say that they don't have sushi, that's when you know you've hit a real Japanese spot, because sushi is actually not a big part of real Jap food.

Sanma Onigiri - Cooked rice balls with Shiitake mushroom, pickled radish and mountain vegetables wrapped with a whole-baked pike mackerel

So we got some cooked rice balls wrapped in mackerel. We were all pretty full by now (ten dishes later), so we got this one to go for our Italian friend to spread the word about authentic Japanese food.

All and all, a delightfully authentic Japanese experience. Just like the website said, it's like stepping into Tokyo. By the time we left, the restaurant was almost all filled up, mostly with Japanese workers bringing their American colleagues. A lot of them looked like regulars. They are quite punctual, and kicked us out at exactly 8pm, two hours after our reservation time.

By my calculations, the total bill was probably $120, almost $30 per person for our party of four. Thankfully none of us drank, because I'm sure the bill would have tallied up quickly had we drank their sake. Although not much business was done that night, all of us (especially our Italian friend) thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

**** (4/5 stars)
Reservation required
Kids-probably-not-friendly (don't think you want your kid to be exposed to alcohol this early on)

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