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Ode to Saka Gura

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  • Dennison Nov 1, 2001 10:10 AM

Well, here I sit this morning still basking in a postprandial glow induced by a fantastic meal at Saka Gura yesterday evening. Ordered from the daily specials of course and had the ankimo (monkfish liver in ponzu sauce), which was so delicately creamy that it rivaled the finest foie gras; soy braised cod so rich it rivals Nobu’s overhyped version; and a deluxe sashimi plate so astoundingly fresh and masterfully assembled that it was certainly one of the best I’ve ever had, especially the roe.

We chose sake sets #5 and #8 (the fragrant ones) and fell in love with Daiten Shiragiku sake – this is liquid Juicy Fruit gum for adults, with all of the luscious flavor burst and none of the cloying sugar. It lost none of its charm when served in a carafe.

This was a perfect meal during a difficult time – a lot of fear in the Manhattan air, but all was washed clean, dissipated by the power of food so intrinsically good and beautiful that everything else faded away. There were Perfect Chowhound Moments – the cold tang of the ponzu sauce yielding to the rich cream of the ankimo in an instant so startling that it was nothing short of culinary satori, and the surprise of finding chewy rice balls among the peach slices in the delicate kanten dessert. This element of delightful surprise is a leitmotif at Saka Gura that builds from the very start as you navigate the unassuming office building lobby, nod at the security guard and hit the fire stairs. I’ve eaten there before, but never appreciated it as much as I did last night. The therapeutic value of the meal didn’t reveal itself fully until afterwards during the walk across town – seemed like all was right with this part of the world for the moment, and I can’t ask for anything better than that.

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  1. This is arguably the most underrated restaurant in New York.

    They're well enough known for their sake, of course (though, ironically, that's gone downhill...it's been a long time since I had a fresh-tasting glass there), but their kitchen is totally unappreciated by press and chowhoundish buzz. And it's actually improved since I raved about them in my book.

    I once brought a couple of chowhounds from Tokyo there (a risky idea, to be sure!), and both affirmed that the place rocks even by Tokyo standards.

    Aside from the comfortably-yet-swanky decor, the friendly staff, the good jazz, the adventure of finding its secret hidden location in a basement benath a generic office building lobby, Saka Gura is a gem. And not over-expensive, either.

    ciao

    9 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      Jim, I'm a bit confused by what you mean by "fresh-tasting glass" of sake, and how you assess the downhill descent of the sake pouring at Sakagura. I'm not much of a drinker, and admittedly a novice with sake, but is your (slight) beef with the selection or the handling of the sake or something else? It seems to me that pouring sake (from a bottle) is a simpler operation than, say, pouring a pint of Guiness.

      Besides that, I completely agree about the food.

      1. re: Eric Eto

        I should probably reply on General Topics, but I'll gamble that this digression won't pick up too much steam.

        With the exception of a very few aged sakes (which are actually growing some in popularity, but are still rarities), sake is meant to be drunk reasonably soon after brewing. Also, it's not meant to sit long in an opened bottle.

        Both have been problems at Saka Gura. Lots of old bottles (they may be buying in great bulk for a better price), and lots of sakes that taste oxygenated from too much time exposed to air in half-poured bottles.

        If you don't drink a lot of a particular brand, it can be hard to tell. Some inferior brands taste dead even when fresh. But the symptoms are lifelessness and subtly "off" flavors. It's been a terrible problem for the past 6 months or so there, across a wide range of their sakes.

        Great food, though.

        ciao

        1. re: Jim Leff

          Jim, thanks for the clarification. I had wondered whether oxygenation was a problem for sake, as it would be for wine, as opposed to harder liquors. I guess I had previously bought into the notion that sake was closer akin to hard liquors, and as long as sake was stored properly, it wouldn't lose too much of its integrity. I remember having a few opened bottles of sake (various grades) sitting around the house for my parents to serve to guests. Then again, sake (as with other home served goodies) probably tastes different in someone's living room than in a sophisticated bar. Good of you for being on top of the sake situation.

          1. re: Eric Eto

            I'm a novice at sake, and I don't know the details of how it is made, but I've always understood that sake is most like beer in terms of how it is produced. If that is so one might expect oxidation to affect sake as much as it does beer, and that is considerably.

            1. re: Deven Black

              In fact, sake IS beer. It's a fermented (and undistilled) beverage made from a grain.

              And as with beer, the overwhelming majority of it is intended to be drunk fresh (and the tiny minority that's intended for aging is the stuff I'm mostly interested in).

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Don't know if you've been to Jewel Bako, but they poured my wife and I a glass of amazing saki (which I'm pretty sure he said was aged) and they were considering putting it on the menu. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

            2. re: Eric Eto

              Sake is just as finicky as beer (because, as I said to Deven, it IS beer). And problems are more evident, because sake's flavor is subtler, and there are no distracting bubbles. It's delicate stuff, and though you rarely see it written about, devotees dismiss the majority of sake served in the US as being horribly old and dead-tasting. As with tap beer, care must be taken....but usually isn't.

              The sole way, I believe, that beer is more delicate than sake has to do with light. There's an enzyme in hops which interacts with light to produce a skunky flavor. Beer exposed to light (in essence, most of the beer you buy in those bright, glimmering deli coolers--which is why I ALWAYS reach back to the back of the cooler) is called "skunked". Green glass bottles greatly exacerbate the problem...it allows in the most harmful rays. This is why Heineken tastes so different in bottles than in cans. The "great imported taste" of bottled Heineken is, in fact, the taste of skunk.

              I don't think light affects sake quite as badly. But opened bottles quickly lose flavor, and even old sealed ones have a comparatively short lifespan. It's made to be drunk fresh.

              ciao

              1. re: Jim Leff

                Are you sure that degredation of beer due to light includes artificial light? I understood it to be sunlight only, which has many other wavelengths of light than a bulb can produce and is much more intense. I'd be surprised if anything can be damaged by the week flourescent output of the standard deli case. I'm also surprised to hear you describe Heineken in bottles as skunked-tasting -- I've always found it to be one of the more reliable bottled beers.

                In fact, I read an interesting Consumer Report blind tasting of beers recently, and they noted Heineken as one of the best, though they did slam Corona and Rolling Rock as being consistently skunked (clear and green bottles), as well as Amstel Light (brown bottle).

                1. re: Jason W.

                  Please see new thread on General Topics titled "Skunky Beer". Please, everyone, reply there and not here. Or take a look at several previous discussions we've had on this subject on that board.

      2. Two questions about Saka Gura: How much does it cost to eat dinner there, and is there a bar at which a lone diner can sit? Thanks.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Ira Kaplan

          There is a long bar at which one could sit & eat and/or drink alone (looks like a sushi bar set up). I've never had a full dinner there, but prices add up quickly between the sake's & the dishes.

          1. re: julesj66

            Thanks, Jules, but could you be more specific on the cost? How much are the dishes? Are we talking $30 for dinner or $50 or $80?

            1. re: Ira Kaplan

              Best to approach Sakagura's menu as you would a tapas menu. There are many small dishes served ranging from $4-$15, and some larger portions from $8 on up. Then there's the sake. You can get away with a sampling of a few items for much less than you imagine, or you can hunker down with a load of stuff and sake and blow a good portion of your paycheck. It's up to you.

              Link: http://www.sakagura.com/foodmenu.html

              1. re: Eric Eto

                The deluxe sashimi platter was priced at $35 last night and the ankimo and cod were $8 a plate. Sake prices go from very inexpensive to quite dear -- the sake sets (which are fun and highly recommended for newbies and pros alike) go from somewhere around $15 to $22 for a sampling of four. As for dining alone, there are usually a number of sararimen fresh off work (alone and in groups) at the bar right after the joint opens at 6. The crowd tends to get younger and hipper as the hours go by.