Even with its inspired izakaya menu and a selection of sake vast enough to rival Tokyo’s finest sake bars, the scene at midtown’s Sakagura is literally underground. During a 20-minute wait for a table, a little eavesdropping offers whispers of context and diners’ first impressions:
“Not everybody knows about this place,” says a man to his companion, who is still clearly getting her bearings after descending deep into the belly of a nondescript office building and traversing the hot, pungent-smelling corridor that leads to Sakagura. “I would have never guessed this was here,” says another patron.
After 17 years Sakagura has aged well in the NYC sake scene, and despite its subterranean location, it has built a worldwide reputation. John Gauntner, the planet’s only non-Japanese certified master of sake tasting, calls Sakagura the “gold standard” for sake bars in the United States.
Which leads to another first impression: It helps to have a dinner reservation. During a recent Tuesday visit, every table is full, and each seat at the long wooden bar is packed, filled with diners lingering over small bites paired with one of Sakagura’s 200 types of sake.
Sakagura’s menu features izakaya usuals such as edamame, tsukune, and agedashi tofu, plus some inspired takes on Japanese classics by chef Yasuhiro Honma. Some of Honma’s more innovative creations include the sanma onigiri ($9), which upends the traditional seaweed-wrapped rice ball with carefully crafted circles of veggie-infused rice robed in a whole grilled sanma (mackerel pike), and a dish called sake oyako don ($16), a clever interpretation of the classic oyako don: The kanji “oya” and “ko” mean “parent” and “child,” and the dish is traditionally made with fried chicken and eggs over rice. Honma’s plating is a clever shift of the wordplay, deploying salmon roe and salmon sashimi instead.
Jagadango ($6)—a mashed potato encased in fried dough—pleasantly plays savory when you’d expect pancake-sweet, and nasu dengaku ($12), a grilled eggplant dish, offers roasted Japanese aubergine with a trio of miso toppings: spinach, egg, and a sweet, dark mixture.
But while the food is noteworthy, Sakagura’s real claim to fame is its drinkable library of sake; more than 600 bottles are kept chilled in a 35-foot-long cooler. Sake sensei Gauntner (a native Ohioan) says Sakagura “was the first place to embrace sake in all its true diversity, and I know of no other place that does as great a job of educating about sake as you enjoy it, or making it as intellectually accessible.”
He’s talking in part about Sakagura’s waitstaff, of which each member is a “certified sake advisor” who will provide sample tastes and explanations to help guide you to a decision from the encyclopedic sake list—which tops out at $425 for a 750ml bottle. In addition to insights from the staff, the sake list also provides educational blurbs on varieties of sake, regional differences, brewing techniques, and more.
A tasting of three varieties of Junmai sake from Fukushima Prefecture showed striking diversity out of a region the size of Puerto Rico: The top-tier taste had light, elegant qualities remarkable for a drink with an 18 percent alcohol content, while the cheapest taste (a “reasonable” sake, the server says) was a bitingly dry alcoholic beverage.
Order sake by the bottle, half-bottle, carafe, glass, or in a masu—a Japanese lacquer box. Presentation of the libation is rather botanical, with bottles and carafes delivered in flower- and leaf-adorned vessels. The arrangement works well with the whole vibe of the restaurant: its high ceilings painted midnight black, the tables sectioned off into intimate nooks, flanked by wooden railings, bamboo accents, and fresh flowers. Coupled with the Japanese-style awnings and archways affixed well below the rooftop, the interior gives the feeling of being in a secret garden in Japan, where visitors can get intimate with a bottle of Sakagura’s finest and almost forget about being in a basement in New York City.