The entrance to SG Low, on the second floor of a nondescript building just past Tower Records Shibuya, is an unmarked wooden door that could be mistaken for a broom closet. But it opens onto a cavernous space anchored by a theatrically lit bar. A giant metal lamp shaped like a koinobori (carp streamer) hangs from the ceiling; the light that streams from the crevices of its carved fish scales shines on plates of karaage fried chicken and sushi handrolls.
As the kimono-clad host leads me to my seat at the counter, I’m struck by a feeling of nostalgia. Maybe it’s the music, a party soundtrack that swings from ’90s hip-hop and house music to Latin rhythms. Perhaps it’s the fact that one patch of wall plastered with kitsch Japanese stickers reminds me of the graffiti-covered interior of Decibel, the iconic punk-rock sake bar in New York’s East Village. The overall effect is that of a speakeasy-style izakaya (Japanese pub), filtered through the aesthetic of a Wes Anderson movie.
The latest addition to the lineup of bars produced by SG Group, SG Low bills itself as an izakaya “inspired by the street culture in New York’s Lower East Side and Tokyo’s Shibuya district,” says founder Shingo Gokan.
Although siblings The SG Club and The Bellwood feature elaborate, period-themed ambience based on highly specific narratives, the new bar “doesn’t have the same kind of long backstory.” The decor is pared down; the concept simpler. Even so, SG Group is supremely skilled in the architecture of affect, and has created a casual watering hole that feels good to be in. The atmosphere is buoyed by affable service and tiny surprises: The evening starts with a two-sip, low-alcohol martini offered as a welcome drink, and, at the end of the meal, the bill is presented inside a hollowed-out hardcover book.
“At our other bars, around 70% of the guests are expats or international visitors, so we wanted to do something that’s more for the Japanese market,” Gokan says.
The food menu, created by chef Atsushi Furukawa, formerly of SakaMai in New York, consists of spiffed-up izakaya favorites with global twists. The karaage comes with cumin-scented harissa chili sauce, while potato salad is reimagined as a bowl of ramen, topped with chāshū pork, roasted seaweed and a boiled quail’s egg. Beef tongue stew, flavored with piquant hacchō miso and red wine, is cross-cultural winter comfort food, while mazemen (a style of ramen without soup) gets a double dose of umami from sea urchin and roasted bone marrow.
Some of the best dishes — such as the spicy tuna roll made with fatty tuna — are versions of recipes that first debuted as part of the SG Airways pop-up, a series of food-and-cocktail-pairing events The SG Club launched last summer.
“Our business took a big hit (due to the pandemic-induced travel restrictions and operating hours under Japan’s state of emergency), but SG Airways helped a lot,” Gokan says. “We’re going to wrap up SG Airways at the end of February in order to focus on SG Low.”
Four of SG Group’s outlets in Tokyo and Shanghai are ranked on the list of Asia’s 50 Best Bars, and the cocktails at SG Low live up to the company’s reputation. The SG Martini — a match for a bite-sized mochi rice cake wrapped in cured Iberian ham and layered with nattō (fermented soybeans) in butter — is a smooth blend of gin, The SG Shochu Kome and fino sherry. Much effort has gone into perfecting the lemon sour: The menu features 12 varieties, including a smoky and savory sour made with mezcal, and an “experimental” version made with a quince-derived distillate from Copenhagen-based Empirical Spirits.
Later, Gokan mentions that there’s also a wide selection of natural wines and sake. When I tell him that I didn’t see wine or sake on the menu, he gives a short laugh.
“You have to know to ask for them,” he says, a wink evident in his voice. “Remember, it’s speakeasy-style.”
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