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Kamozou: A traditional cure for the rainy-season blues

by Robbie Swinnerton

In this gloomiest of seasons, when the skies are leaden and the streets clogged with dripping umbrellas, we find there’s only one recourse: Head for a favorite neighborhood eatery and hunker down, glass in hand. If we’re anywhere near Kagurazaka and sake is what we fancy, our refuge of choice is Kamozou.

Tucked away on the second floor of one of those ugly buildings that are spoiling this once-charming neighborhood, Kamozou feels anything but traditional. But since it opened last year, this bright, modern specialist pub (to call it an izakaya would give the wrong idea) has become a magnet for aficionados of premium nihonshu, sake from regional kura (breweries), produced with care and on a relatively small scale.

It is not the decor and atmosphere that draw us back, cheerful and welcoming though they are: it’s the sake list. Kamozou has one of the best selections in the area, not only in numbers — there are over 150 to choose from — but in quality. Crammed inside that refrigerated unit behind the small counter by the door are numerous rare and limited-edition brews hard to find elsewhere.

This is absolutely as you would expect, since Kamozou is the third in the growing stable of sake-specialist taverns run by Noriharu Nozaki — among them the self-named Nozaki in Shinbashi (which we extolled in this column last year). Not that you will find him behind the counter at Kamozou these days. If he is not at the newest of his four operations (Uraya, in Ikebukuro), he is likely visiting regional kura, even rolling up his sleeves to help produce batches of sake.

Confronted with the lengthy sake list he has compiled here, it helps if you know the basics, a few kura, styles or prefectures you like. Dewazakura, Denshu and Kokuryu are three reliable names to start with, and so too are our perennial favorites Tedorigawa and Kudoki Jozu. But it’s hard to go wrong here. The small serving sizes make everything affordable, except for the most exclusive bottles.

As often as not, though, we just leave the choice up to manager Mayumi Yamashita. As a trained kikizakeshi (sake sommelier), she not only knows her nihonshu, she is also keen to emphasize the small but growing female influence in this very traditional industry. By the counter, she has a blackboard showing breweries where the owners, brewmasters or cellar workers are women. She can also recommend what food goes best with each tipple. This is especially helpful as the menu (like the sake list) is eclectic, extensive and written entirely in Japanese.

The other day, we started with maguro no yukke, cubes of raw tuna dressed with Korean-style toasted sesame oil and topped with a raw quail’s egg. We followed this with a plate of aji no tataki, small horse mackerel fished straight from the tank, sliced up and reassembled still quivering on its own bones, with ginger, shiso herb and chopped scallions as condiments. Sashimi doesn’t get any fresher than that.

As at any self-respecting Japanese restaurant, there are always seasonal specials. Right now, the young ayu (sweetfish) are at their peak and wonderful just grilled with a light coating of salt. On Yamashita’s recommendation, though, we ordered the fish in tawara-age style. Wrapped in a bundle of thin somen noodles, slowly deep-fried and dusted with sanshō pepper, the fish was cooked so tender that everything was edible, head, bones, fins and all.

There are plenty of meat and chicken dishes to nibble on, from sashimi of wagyu beef to grilled tebasaki chicken wings, as well as old standards such as ebi shinjo (deep-fried shrimp dumplings in savory broth) or dashimaki tamago omelet. This is not complex cooking, but everything is excellent, just the right match for whatever you’re drinking.

Kamozou has none of the trappings of tradition. It is not a place for carousing noisily (there are plenty of those elsewhere in Kagurazaka) or for entry-level drinkers. Calm and undemonstrative, it’s aimed at people who need no convincing that good sake is for savoring. Just perfect for raising the spirits on a dreary evening during the rainy season.