It’s the constant conundrum we all face when we arrive in a strange city or wander into an unfamiliar neighborhood. Among the profusion of restaurants and bars, how can you tell which ones are any good? One rule of thumb that has stood us in good stead here over the years: keep your eyes peeled for sakabayashi.
Looking for all the world like fuzzy, brownish-green disco-balls, these globes of cedar needles — also known as sugidama (literally, “cedar balls”) — can be found hanging above the entrance to shops, bars and taverns that specialize in quality sake. These time-honored symbols make no promises about the caliber of the victuals. However, experience has shown us that wherever premium drink is purveyed, you are likely to find food of similar quality.
That is certainly the case at Seigetsu. This fine izakaya is hidden away above a convenience store at the upper end of the Kagurazaka main street, and the stairs leading to its 2nd-floor entrance would barely warrant a second glance, were it not for the sakabayashi hanging outside.
Make your way upstairs, and you find yourself in an izakaya that melds the best of traditional and contemporary. Although you relinquish your shoes at the door, little of the seating is actually on tatami mats. The spacious wood-clad room has been split into semiprivate alcoves, some with chairs or benches, others with horikotatsu leg-wells. There is also a nonsmoking area at the back, well away from the main dining room (here you do sit at low tables at floor level). But the fun seats are those at the polished timber counter that runs the length of the open kitchen.
Inevitably, your eyes will be drawn to the grill pit at the far end of the kitchen — safely screened behind see-through plexiglass to avert any wayward sparks. Here, the resident grillmeister tends to his cuts of fish, chicken and vegetables. Instead of grilling them horizontally over the flames, as is usual, he spears them on metal spits and stands them upright around the glowing coals, constantly checking and adjusting them until they are cooked just right.
The grill may be the focus of attention and the menu, but there is plenty more to explore and observe. At the other end of the kitchen, the young sashimi chef turns out a constant stream of super-fresh seafood. Order up a mixed plate (moriawase) for two (¥2,000 — ask for ni-nin-mae) and you will be presented with a large platter of rough, slate-gray ceramic that will feature as many as a dozen different kinds of fish, crustaceans and shellfish.
To accompany this, of course, you need good sake. And this is where Seigetsu really delivers on the promise of that sakabayashi down at street level. It stocks more than 100 varieties sourced from around the country, many from lesser-known breweries whose output is rarely found here in the capital. The prices are more than fair: ¥700 for a junmaishu (100-percent-rice sake) from Denshu or a Dewazakura daiginjo (high-grade sake) represents brilliant value, especially for a full 180 ml glass. Even more remarkably, most of them are given in English, making the selection process so much easier than when having to guess from arcane lists of kanji. There is also a substantial selection of shochu, umeshu (plum wine) and the usual chu-hai sours.
The rest of the food menu is equally satisfying. The deep-fried goya (bitter melon) chips make an irresistible and distinctive beer snack. The fresh-made tofu (sukui-dofu) is served in scoops in small bamboo baskets. There are a good number of vegetable dishes, including Japanese-accented salads (with plenty of wakame [seaweed] and/or shirasu whitebait, with a myoga [Japanese ginger] flavored dressing). And although the roast duck with balsamico dressing is perhaps a dish too far — overambitious — you can’t go wrong with such izakaya staples as deep-fried chicken (jidori no kara-age) or minced chicken (tsukune-yaki), grilled here not on sticks but scooped onto small bamboo paddles.
To close, the izakaya offers noodles (cha–soba), or for greater sustenance, kamameshi: individually prepared pots of rice topped with chicken, eel, crab or fish (we can recommend the oyako version, featuring salmon and ikura roe). You will leave satisfied, not just replete but with little lasting damage to your wallet.Although Seigetsu is one of several similar izakaya run by the Teshigotoya group, it does not have a corporate feel, except perhaps in its efficiency and attention to detail. The staff are young, friendly and helpful. The background music may veer toward rock but you rarely hear it above the buzz of the crowd. And while its main demographic is couples and youngish professionals, don’t be surprised if you also see groups of kimono-wearing ladies from the more traditional end of Kagurazaka.
Fine sake, good victuals and an English menu — what more do you need?
The echoing basement of Tokyo International Forum is not an obvious place to look for fine sake — but Takara is not a regular kind of izakaya. The split-level premises are not the most convivial surroundings, and the menu of modern izakaya fare is little more than adequate. However, the main draw is the considerable selection of premium sake from around Japan, plus some fine microbrewed ales (and a few Spanish wines too).The sake list should provide more information than it does, seeing as this is where sake expert and former Japan Times columnist John Gauntner conducts his regular sake tastings, but at least it gives the basics.
Tokyo International Forum B1 Concourse, 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5223-9888; www.gnavi.co.jp/musshu. Yurakucho Station (JR Yamanote and Yurakucho lines). Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-11 p.m. (Sat.-Sun. 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.)
The Shunju group invented the idea of the stylish upmarket modern izakaya, with its trademark blend of influences — modern and traditional; farmhouse and urban; Japanese and imported — both in the interiors and on the menu. Its Roppongi branch, Shunju Torrizaka attracts a young professional crowd, and can get smoky and noisy (though never boisterous). But the bottom line remains its devotion to quality ingredients, including its good sake list which, like the food menu, is outlined in English.
House 5302 B1, 5-16-47 Roppongi, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 3583-2611; www.shunju.com/ja/restaurants/toriizaka; Roppongi Station (Hibiya and Oedo lines). Open daily 6-11:30 p.m.
From the friendly hubbub that spills out of the doorway at Kaikaya most nights, you know they keep a full cellar. This laid-back Japanese-style diner on the fringes of Shibuya is still far enough from the main drag to retain its neighborhood feel. The welcome is always warm; the seafood is great and always fresh; and there’s plenty of good sake to choose from. Best of all, the prices are very reasonable. No wonder this place is everyone’s worst-kept secret.
23-7 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3770-0878; www.kaikaya.com; Shinsen Station (Inokashira Line). Open daily 5:30-11 p.m.