When Gaku and Christy Shibata opened Yopparai on the Lower East Side a couple of years back, they quickly garnered a legion of serious sake fans, who’d drop in to the intimate space for sips of rare Japanese rice wine paired to traditional izakaya fare. The Shibatas were pleased to find that following, but they were convinced, too, that sake could be more mainstream in this city. And so on May 4, they’ll open Azasu (49 Clinton Street, 212-777-7069), a larger restaurant that’s focused on making sake and Japanese drinking culture accessible to everyone.
“Yopparai… is our passion project,” Christy explains, a place the two sake sommeliers opened when they moved to New York from Tokyo and missed the types of restaurants they frequented in that city. “We felt like there was broader audience, though, that was a little intimidated by the existing spot, or who wanted something more casual.”
Azasu is still a Japanese izakaya, and it will serve traditional fare, but, says Christy, “It’s meant for groups. Or it’s a place you can come after work for a beer and snacks without committing to a full dinner.” The space is built out accordingly, and it’s anchored by communal tables plus a few two-tops.
The menu deals in Japanese fried foods and sandwiches; look for gyoza dumplings — including a non-traditional version stuffed with tofu — ham katsu, and sandwiches stuffed with everything from potato salad to panko-crusted meatballs. “Sandwiches are a really typical convenience store offering,” Christy says. “As an American, I was really shocked when I first got to Tokyo at things they put in a sandwich — they’ll put anything between two slices of bread — but that’s the inspiration.”
That food pairs to Japanese beers and cup sake, a more affordable offering of the drink that Christy says is ubiquitous in Japan. “In Japan, you can get sake in a vending machine; it comes in glass or a can. It’s not high end, but it’s single serving, more affordable, and you can still try a wide variety. And now, a lot of breweries are making higher quality sakes in cans.” Azasu will also offer shochu cocktails, including one poured from a slushie machine that the owners think will be popular come summer.
We’re hoping to be an addition to the neighborhood where people are comfortable,” says Christy. “It’s a great area for so many restaurants.”
Azasu will serve dinner when it opens on May 4 and plans to eventually add weekend brunch and take-out.