How better to start the new year than with lofty aspirations, a leisurely dinner in a hip setting, techno on the sound system — and plenty of great sake? That’s exactly what you find at The Hangar, a sleek little sake-specialist bar-turned-restaurant that seems to exemplify Japan’s reborn enthusiasm for its national tipple, nihonshu.
Just a few steps away from the limpid, tree-lined banks of the Meguro River in Naka-Meguro, The Hangar occupies a much smaller footprint than you’d guess from its name. But owner Yoshiaki Soma is thinking big. And he’s already made a major evolution in his approach.
When he first opened here a year and a half back, The Hangar functioned as a sake standing bar — not the no-frills, one-cup type of joint common a generation ago but a sophisticated, well-groomed take on the genre that fit perfectly in this laid-back, style-conscious neighborhood.
It had just a single long table that you propped yourself up at as you sipped from Soma’s compact but carefully curated cellar, sourced mostly from smaller, progressive sake breweries, many of them with dynamic younger owners. He also put together a creative menu of nibbles — contemporary versions of traditional sake snacks with unusual twists and quirky names (at least in English).
Last summer, he decided the time was right to move his concept forward. He brought in chairs and converted his table into an intimate six-seat, reservation-only restaurant. And in place of the a la carte finger food, he now has a chef — Yasunobu Namiki, known to all as Nobu — who serves multicourse dinner menus of innovative cuisine that dovetail beautifully with Soma’s (mostly) excellent sake pairings.
In winter, Nobu is likely to welcome you with a small, comforting beaker of umami-rich minestrone — Nobu uses Akita hinai-jidori fowl in his cooking — and a simple appetizer of vegetables from his home prefecture, Gunma. If you’re lucky, he will follow this with a striking black (charcoal ash) tempura of cod’s cheek with yuri-ne (lily bulb).
One of the highlights is his brilliant Genovese-inspired noodles. Instead of linguine, he uses udon from the Goto Islands off the coast of Nagasaki. And in place of basil, he prepares a thick, creamy pesto of green oba (perilla) leaves, which he blends with hints of sansho pepper and green ume plum.
As a main course, the Hokkaido venison came with a black sesame sauce, pureed Jerusalem artichoke, a chutney of fermented fig and a sprinkle of hamanatto (dark savory fermented soybeans). This is complex cooking that looks as good as the surroundings.
Downstairs below the restaurant, Soma has a gallery devoted to hand-crafted sake utensils, which he sometimes opens up for events. In December, this was the venue for techno DJ Richie Hawtin to launch the latest in his Enter.Sake line. It is precisely this intersection of music, sake, food and happening people that makes The Hangar a place well worth knowing.
No phone — reservations by email only; dinner menu ¥8,000, sake pairing from ¥4,000; English menu; English spoken
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5