Whenever you find a place that serves good sake, there is a high chance it has quality food, too. No matter if it’s an upscale Japanese restaurant, a down-home izakaya tavern or an obscure bar for sake geeks, this rule of thumb rarely fails. It certainly applies at Gem by Moto.
This excellent little sake specialist in nether Ebisu does not fall into any of those categories. In fact, with its hardwood counter, glass doors looking out on the street and uncluttered, monochrome decor, you might take it for a Scandinavian-style coffee shop — until, that is, you spy the glow of the large refrigerator and its distinctive cargo of bottles.
Inviting and accessible, Gem by Moto is the kind of place that feels as easy to enter for first-timers as it is for regulars. This is precisely the intention of owner Marie Chiba.
Her customers are often only just starting to develop a taste for sake. Many are women who feel comfortable stopping by to drink solo. The brewers themselves are customers too, dropping in when they’re in the capital — and usually leaving scrawled messages on the walls.
Long before opening Gem by Moto in the summer of 2015, Chiba was already championing the new wave of brewers whose experimentation has been taking sake far from its entrenched roots. She not only sells their sake, she commissions them herself, and has these custom brews aged for years at subzero temperatures to draw out extra depths of flavor. To ensure this sake stays in optimum condition, she has her own walk-in refrigerated storeroom that stays just as cold: -5 degrees Celsius.
Given this level of passion and expertise, it’s not surprising that Chiba makes sure the food is equally up to scratch. The menu (all in Japanese) is inscribed on blackboards over the entrance. Pick from classic sakana (sake snacks) on the left side; home-smoked fish, cheese and other tidbits on the right; and on the middle boards, more substantial dishes, several of them served hot.
The sensible option is to give Chiba carte blanche to bring you a selection of dishes paired with her recommendations, too. Unless you have specific dislikes — not everyone is keen on creamy shirako (cod milt) — there will be little danger of disappointment.
Make sure to start with the potato salad, which includes cheese and walnuts, with prosciutto on top. Other year-round favorites include sui-gyoza (boiled dumplings) stuffed with shrimp and coriander, and aji no namero (horse mackerel tartare). And don’t miss the remarkable blue-cheese ham katsu, made from breaded, deep-fried ham slices with a gooey stuffing of savory moromi (soy sauce mash). Chiba will likely pair this with milky-white doburoku (unfiltered homebrew sake).
Right now she has some great autumn dishes. The sanma to yaki-nasu (saury and eggplant) tartare is actually more like a terrine, and very good, too. And the Gem Salad — always excellent, no matter the season — currently comes adorned with portions of luscious black figs. When spring arrives, it will be served with a towering pile of deep-fried burdock strips. Simple but so tasty, like Gem by Moto itself.
1-30-9 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6455-6998; open Tue.-Fri. 5-11:30 p.m., Sat., Sun. and hols. 1-9 p.m.; nearest station: Ebisu; budget around ¥4,000; no smoking; major credit cards accepted; no English menu; little English spoken. For more details, visit bit.ly/2ffP4ug. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.