Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sakai Shokai: Quality izakaya dining at this hidden Shibuya gem

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Hideaki Sakai doesn’t make it easy to find his diminutive premises. Hidden on the second floor of an anonymous building on a quiet backstreet on the “wrong” side of Shibuya, it is invisible from the street. You access it through an unmarked door next to an offal specialist grill, up a steep flight of stairs that seem to lead nowhere.

You will not be the first to hesitate at the bottom of those unpromising steps. But this is intentional: Sakai Shokai is not a place you are meant to stumble into by chance. If you’re not with someone who’s been there before, you need to call ahead and then try to navigate your way there. That’s what makes it special.

Sakai first wet his feet as a chef while living in Australia, where he picked up his good command of English. Once back home, he immersed himself in contemporary Japanese izakaya culture, first at the (now-closed) Zetton; then at Shibuya’s dynamic and ever-popular Namikibashi Nakamura; and finally a short spell at the equally hard to find (and impossibly hard to book) Kotaro.

Sakai Shokai has much in common with Kotaro besides its obscure location. It is similar in size and layout — a 12-seat counter running the length of a narrow open kitchen, plus a couple of small tables tucked away at the far end — but also in the extensive scope and quality of the menu.

Most people order a la carte, a few dishes at a time, pairing them with beer, wine — Sakai favors natural, low-intervention types, offering three or four by the glass each night — or sake from small-scale brewers around Japan. Others just give him a ballpark figure — say ¥5,000 a head (plus drinks) — and leave the choices up to him. Either way, you’ll eat well.

Sakai hails from Fukuoka, and sources most of his seafood and other ingredients from the Kyushu region. His sashimi plate always makes an excellent start to the meal, as does his selection of mixed seasonal zensai (appetizers).

Some of the standouts on his autumn menu include fresh persimmon and shimeji mushrooms, dressed with creamy shiraae (tofu) sauce; figs and mascarpone; the classic Kyoto combination of hamo eel with matsutake mushrooms; and superb komochi ayu karaage (deep-fried sweetfish that is plump with roe).

Signature dishes to look out for are his juicy tebasaki (chicken wings); ham katsu (breaded ham cutlets); and Ozaki beef prepared with black garlic soy sauce.

To close the meal, look no further than Sakai’s donabe (earthenware pot) rice, into which he mixes a choice of toppings. None are better than his anago (conger eel) tempura. The combination of steaming rice with the soft, sweet flesh of the eel and the crunch of the batter is memorable.

When Sakai Shokai first opened in April 2018, he drew attention as a late-night spot, where the drinks flowed until well past midnight. Since then, Sakai has moved his business hours forward, starting from 4 p.m. (on Saturday from 2 p.m.). If you are hoping to get in without a prior reservation — and can find your way to this unlikely location — that is the best time to try your luck.

Omakase menu from ¥5,000, also a la carte; English spoken