I took the 2 hour bus ride to New York City a couple of weeks ago with the sole purpose of having dinner with my friend Bird for her birthday.
- Happy Birthday in SAKAGURA
Her apartment on the upper west side of the city is my kind of habitat. It is filled with books that I could have chosen (hundreds of lovely books from art to poetry) and not one item, utilitarian or decorative, chosen with disregard. When she greeted me, she proudly swung the door open to show me how clean and neat as a pin it all was. She declared she had never seen it so organised and spotless, and thanked me for coming to visit, otherwise she would never have bothered.
Who would? The sole reason to have a visitor or big dinner party is to spur you on to clean your house. My friends are the reason that my house never gets out of control. The trick is to have someone over most weekends and then you are sure to at least keep the bathrooms in decent order!
- Speaking of bathrooms: Pristine bathrooms at Sakagura
So, where to eat for the big birthday celebrations for a party of two? The initial plan was to go to a place she loved because there would be no disappointments. On the other hand we toyed with the idea of somewhere new, trendy even, but what if the food was bad, or the music was crappy, or worse still, the atmosphere dismal? We decided that these were risks one doesn’t take on Birthdays and called her very favorite place, SAKAGURA, a Japanese restaurant in Midtown on the east side of the city.
She told me it would be hard to get a spot in this place last-minute and so I told her I would call as I have a knack for wrangling what I want over the telephone. There was no such thing as walking in and hoping for a seat at the long counter, let alone any contemplation of snagging a table, but snag a table we did, and it was all because of birds!
- Eggplant with three fermented sauces
When I called the restaurant an extremely nice Japanese lady named Yoshi was on the other end. I asked for a table and of course there was nothing. I told her that my friend Bird wanted to have dinner there to celebrate her birthday, and she was taken with the fact that her name was “Bird”. I said “yes, it was Bird as in the feathered kind” and that she also happen to have six parakeets flying around her apartment as I spoke (yes, Bird has birds!).
- Premium sake at SAKAGURA in blown glass decanter
She said she also had birds and in an instant a reason to help us was firmly established. She had to make this other bird-lover happy. She found us a place at the counter and we had to arrive at 7.45pm sharp to secure our spot. I told her a table would have been great, but that a place at the counter was wonderful too.
- Onigiri – rice balls with salmon roe & fried daikon leaves
The problem was between my friend trying to decide what to wear (luckily I only had what was in my overnight bag to choose from) and sluggish traffic, it was looking like we would arrive 5 minutes later than our reservation time. My friend was anxious and told me to call. I spoke to Yoshi and she was so glad I called and told me she has secured us a table for two. Thank you Yoshi!
- Chilled silken tofu with shaved bonita flakes
Where do I begin to describe to you how authentically Japanese it was? Well, if I blind-folded my son, who is obsessed with all things Japanese, and let him into the little foyer of the restaurant, he would be convinced that time-travel was possible and that he was about to have dinner in Tokyo. It was the strangest feeling to be riding in a new york city yellow cab one minute and the next to be standing in a place were everything around me, including the people looked out-of-place.
This is not a place you can find by chance. It is in the basement of an office building on 43rd st and 2nd ave. When we walked in and down the iron stairwell, I felt like we were entering a speak-easy in the depression era (one can only dream!).
- colorful sake drums
We met the charming Yoshi who parted a white curtain, led us past a stack of colorful sake barrels and to our little table parallel to the long dining counter. The place was serene, with simply set tables, and the only real decorations were rows of sake bottle, little white paper-like barrels filled with premium sakes, clear glass tea kettles and a wild assortment of sake glasses and carafes.
- Chilled premium sake
It was then I found out what this little hide-away restaurant was famous for: premium sake of every description, as many as 200 different kinds to be exact. Up to then, I had only been in Japanese restaurants that offered a selection of sake, along with wine and other alcoholic beverages. This place was all about sake, and each waiter, including ours, was as knowledgeable as a wine sommelier.
- Sake & beautiful glass teapots
As with all good things, it was expensive, so we asked our waiter to lead us in the direction of good premium sakes without paying premium prices. Our first glass was $14 but was worth every delicious sip. I had never tasted anything quite like it and knew I could forfeit red wine without any remorse whatsoever. The first sake was strong and we were told would boost our appetite, while the one we had towards the end of our meal was milder with more floral notes, which would get our palates ready for dessert. Yes, I became a sake snob overnight!
- Marinated cod – how beautiful is that lemon?
I haven’t yet mentioned the food you have been enjoying pictorially during this post, and it is certainly not because it was a poor second to our fermented rice beverage. Firstly, it was so beautifully presented I was sad to destroy it, and secondly, it tasted as good as it looked. We ordered lots of little plates to taste as much as possible. I got to eat all of the things my son would love and with each bite I felt a cringe of guilt that he was not with us to share our meal.
- Chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce
We had a lovely evening enjoying our dinner while also watching lots of other diners do the same. The room was filled with immaculately dressed Japanese patrons with a few foreigners like ourselves sparsely scattered about. It was very clear to me that SAKAGURA will continue to enjoy a long and prosperous life hidden away in a basement on the East Side of Manhattan.
- Many happy returns