Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sasano: A hidden gem of an izakaya

by Robbie Swinnerton

It’s always a pleasure to revisit a favorite haunt after a gap of a couple of years, and even more so to discover that it’s just as good as ever. In the case of Sasano, that doesn’t just mean premium sake and fine quality provender — after all, those are the sine qua non of any self-respecting izakaya these days — but a more generalized sense that here is a place that continues to be special.

Contributing to this impression that you have stumbled into somewhere well beyond the run-of the-mill is the feeling of satisfaction generated by actually managing to find the place. Sasano is one of those discreet little Tokyo establishments that you’d never stumble across without inside information and wouldn’t find your way to without precise directions.

You could say Sasano hides its light under a bushel. It’s tucked away inside an anonymous apartment building whose facade is so drab and unprepossessing it wouldn’t merit a second glance in the normal run of things. The poorly lit entrance is barely visible from the main drag. The ground floor hallway is scruffy, its only artifact an ancient telephone that hasn’t worked for years. You then make your way up a flight of barely salubrious linoleum-floored back stairs. It feels like you’re making a big mistake.

But suddenly, improbably, you are inside an intimate, dimly-lit room that could pass for a stylish cocktail bar. Two huge fish tanks cast a luminous blue glow over a counter where well-heeled men perch on bar stools alongside their dates in expensive casual. In an adjoining room, groups of equally stylish young people sit on the floor, their firm zabuton of woven straw pulled up to low wooden tables. Set into the wall are two miniature aquariums holding equally diminutive tropical marine-life forms.

The array of sake magnums in the fridge is reassurance that substance is by no means outweighed by style. The o-sara platters along the counter demonstrate that they place equal emphasis on victuals. But the best thing about Sasano is the straightforward, unpretentious approach.

Aizawa-san, the boss, favors an indigo samue of thick, padded cotton. His charming manager, Taguchi-san, and her young staff dress in similar jackets of brilliant white. They are all friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the food and drink they serve.

The menu changes every day. Sasano stocks around 40 premium brands of sake, sourced from top breweries around the country, and there is also a selection of more rarified brews kept in reserve. The beers are Ebisu or Heartland; and there is also wine and shochu for those who feel so inclined.

The food at Sasano is first rate. Start off with some gobo chips, long shavings of burdock root deep-fried just long enough to make them crisp. Check the plates arrayed along the counter: They usually hold a selection of stir-fried vegetables that go well with that first drink of the evening.

The seafood — much of it taken straight from the tanks and carved up moments before it is set in front of you — couldn’t be fresher. The species, of course, will vary with the season. Right now, one of the specials is isaki (usually rendered into English as “grunt”), a medium-size white-meat fish whose flesh is sliced so finely it is virtually translucent. There is aori-ika, one of the most delicate varieties of cuttlefish, and also kan-buri, cold-season yellowtail shipped in from the Japan Sea coast. Order up a mixed plate (just ask for mori-awase), for a good sampling of all that is best.

The kitchen produces innovative versions of many izakaya standards — furofuki daikon (soft-simmered daikon radish) and the yaki-anago (grilled conger) are reliable favorites that can be found through most of the year. And do not fail to try the house specialty, negi-ton, a cutlet of pork fried in tempura batter (not the usual breadcrumbs), covered with a huge mound of fine-chopped banno-negi scallions and presented on a leaf of sasa bamboo. Seasoned with a refreshing ponzu sauce just before it is served, this will come as an utter revelation to anyone who still can’t understand all the fuss about tonkatsu.

The name, Sasano, is cunningly derived from alternate readings of the two Chinese characters meaning “sake” and “drink.” They could well have added a couple more ideograms to boast that you will also eat very well here.