To enter the warren of low-rise, low-rent back streets southwest of Shinbashi Station is to venture well off the gourmet beaten track. These few blocks around Karasumori Shrine are known for carousing, not fine dining. But at least there is plenty of good sake to imbibe — once you have found your way to Nozaki Sakaten.
Among the down-at-heels drinking holes and seen-better-days red-lantern eateries, Nozaki stands out thanks to its narrow but well-kempt facade and bold indigo banner. Further clues that you’re in the right place are the wooden barrels by the window, and the glow from the amply stocked refrigerator inside.
Sake is Nozaki’s raison d’être — not the cheap mass-marketed version of Japan’s national tipple made by the major sake companies, but jizake, quality brews crafted on an artisan scale by smaller regional kura (breweries), especially limited-edition versions that are often hard to get hold of beyond their immediate locales.
Lest there be any doubt about this single-minded focus, virtually all available wall space inside the cozy two-floor dining space is covered with sake labels, banners and blackboards inscribed with daily recommendations. The floor staff sport happi coats emblazoned with the names and logos of notable breweries, and are well versed in the minutiae of their specialty.
They can offer close to 100 varieties. These are sourced from across the country and span the full gamut of styles from fresh, straightforward junmaishu to complex, florid daiginjo, and from lightly petillant to thick milky nigori-zake and golden, aged, sherry-scented koshu. All are available in either two or three sizes, from small tasting glasses to full 180 ml tokkuri flasks.
So far so excellent. But equally admirable is the extensive food menu. There are four chefs wedged into the minuscule kitchen, and between them they turn out a remarkable range of izakaya tavern staples.
We usually start with a plate of sashimi. The fish may not be quite as glistening fresh as you’d expect in the uptown sushi shops, but at these prices (¥1,200 for a selection of three kinds of fish; or a weekend special price of ¥2,580 for a massive platter big enough to share between four), no one is complaining.
For a more modest volume, a plate of aji (horse mackerel) is just right, served either as sashimi, tataki (more finely chopped), or — a perennial favorite — as namero, finely minced and blended with negi scallions and a touch of savory miso.
The deep-fried foods are tasty too. Earlier this year, we enjoyed some excellent tempura of sansai (wild mountain greens). Equally good are the ganmodoki (balls of tofu mashed with pieces of vegetables such as yurine lily root). And you can’t go wrong with the ebi-shinjo, deep-fried balls of shrimp meat.
There are healthy salads of shredded daikon and an appetizing selection of tebasaki chicken wings and other kushiyaki grilled chicken. But the most remarkable item on the menu — given the critical lack of kitchen space — are the homemade soba noodles.
These are prepared from scratch: The flour is weighed out, then water mixed in to form the dough. But instead of rolling and chopping them into noodles, the dough is simply passed through an extruder, before being cooked and served (cold, with a dip, as zaru-soba).
This process obviously would not pass muster at a traditional te-uchi noodle shop. But for a cramped izakaya, the results are outstanding and suitably filling. Given the amount of jizake that we work our way through when we visit Nozaki, this is the best way to fill the stomach and ground us sufficiently for the short stagger back to the station.
Nozaki exudes a wholesome and unpretentious enthusiasm for fine sake and simple, honest food. Needless to say, this is proving very popular and there are usually few seats to be had early in the evening, even at weekends.
Interestingly, few of the customers are the usual salarymen who frequent this neighborhood. Nozaki is drawing in a new and younger demographic, which in turn is breathing fresh life into this area, whose underbelly has been growing increasingly sleazy.
To a large degree, this reflects the passion for sake of the man behind the operation, Noriharu Nozaki. Still young but a sake enthusiast for many years now, he sports a blond goatee and invariably an indigo kerchief wrapped around his head.
These days, though, he spends little time at this izakaya that bears his name. Before opening in Shinbashi, he already ran a similar but larger izakaya in Ikebukuro, called Sakanaya. And now he has a third operation to take care of, a new and more stylish sake bar/restaurant called Kamozo, up in Kagurazaka. All are equally worth a visit.
Sakanaya: Tokai Building 2F, Nishi-Ikebukuro 1-35-8, Toshima-ku; (03) 3590-9560; nearest station Ikebukuro; open 5-11:30 p.m. (Sun. and holidays 5-11 p.m.) Kamozo: Ms Kagurazaka Building 2F, 1 Iwatocho, Shinjuku-ku; (03) 3268-4612; nearest stations Kagurazaka, Ushigome-Kagurazaka or Iidabashi; open 5-11:30 p.m. (Sat., Sun. and holidays 4-11 p.m.).