Sakagura | Winter 2013
Sakagura. This is not a “fusion” restaurant. Blasphemy! This is a restaurant serving quality traditional Japanese fare and delicacies that do not warrant someone taking out a personal loan or patrons arranging 3 – 6 month reservations. Yes, I’ve spared you the highfalutin-ness.
Located in a nondescript office building on East 43rd Street, where chances are, if you walked by too quickly you’d miss it (and my friend — who was along with me for a foodie adventure — and I almost did), is actually where you need to be. Don’t be fooled by any other places that may be nearby and street level. To find this place, you actually have to enter the office building of its address, proceed through the lobby and take the stairs (or use the elevator) to the basement. Yes, the basement. Fair warning: The “look” of this is unappealing at best, but trust me, once you get down the stairs and walk straight ahead and open the door, you realize you’re in a more “authentic” Japanese eating establishment and not some celebrity-chef-enclave with modernist and minimalist features.
Sakagura is small, but comfortable, and the staff is attentive. I wanted to experience their dinner menu, the focus of which is on small plates. Think Japanese “tapas”. For two people, ordering 5 – 8 items from their extensive list of choices — and I mean it — is right on target. There is a danger looking at the menu and having your eyes bigger than your stomach. The last thing you’d want is to miss out on is dessert. Who skips dessert? *crickets*
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To start…Brown Tea…
The first dish…Seaweed Salad with Sesame. Seriously, it tasted like the smoothest peanut butter. Sesame didn’t even come to mind if I hadn’t have known. So, if you don’t appreciate or like the taste of peanut butter, there is a citrus vinaigrette dressing.
Our next choice...”Maguro Yamakake” — Fresh Tuna Sashimi Served with Grated Mountain Yam. Another fair warning, and this a rule to adhere to at traditional Japanese restaurants: Use the accompaniments provided by the chef with your meal. There is a reason why they give you both soy sauce and wasabi. You will need it. Without it, I thought it was just absolutely off-putting. So, throw in a small amount of sauce into the bowl, add some or all of the wasabi, and stir. You’re welcome. So, the first photo, as it was presented. The second, with soy sauce poured and the third photo is what it looks like combined. Prepare yourself. It isn’t exactly attractive. And yet another fair warning, it’s a bit slimy and extraordinarily fishy. If you’re averse to either of the two, an alternative — order a tuna roll or sashimi.
I hope you haven’t run away scared after seen that last photo. But, stick with me. If you got a bit squeamish, this is just a slight dip. Believe me, be prepared for an upswing.
The next item was the biggest surprise of the evening…“Jaga Dango” — Mashed Potatoes Coated in Sweet Donut Batter Fried Crisp. This was heavenly! You wouldn’t believe it was made of potatoes. And the batter — whoa! It’s light with a slight sweetness and in no way overly greasy. Blissfully lovely. Accompanied with it was a small dish of salt used for very light dipping. Again, remember the rule: Use what the chef provides.
How would I describe “Sanma Onigiri”? Well, first, according to the menu decription, it’s Cooked Rice Balls with Shiitake Mushroom, Pickled Radish and Mountain Vegetables Wrapped with a Whole Baked Pike Mackerel. This is accurate in every way. Second, the balls are tightly combined with the mushrooms. The dish is accompanied by shredded ginger. If you’re not a fan of mackerel, which tends to be a oily fish (like salmon), this may not be the dish for you. Again, you have a 3-page menu to choose from. Do not dispair — move on.
Our last dish (well, not quite since we ordered a second bowl of the seaweed salad) — “Gindara Yuan Yaki” – Grilled Fillets of Cod Fish Steeped in Sweet Soy Sauce. The cod was meaty, light and cooked to perfection. I ate it all, including the melt-in-your-mouth soft skin. Mmmmm…It is slightly salty — not overpowering, but it is something to take into consideration since it is “steeped…in soy sauce”.
What was left after our feast? Dessert. My choice for the both of us: Black Sesame Cream Brulee with Black Sesame Ice Cream. It did not disappoint. Incredibly yummy, and although you might think…”Another sesame dish?” believe me, the taste of this does not compare to the seaweed salad. So, don’t overlook this for that reason.
Overall Assessment: Two hands — not even thumbs — up! I am so drawn to this place — basement location aside without all the flash and dash of floor-to-ceiling windows and dark wood, etc. — this is definitely on my list of restaurants to re-visit and to share with more friends. Truly a gem in Midtown East and completely unexpected. How did I not know about this place?
Two pluses — aside from the deliciousness of the dishes and the non-offensive price list:
- Numerous Japanese patrons — some of whom appeared to be “regulars” — having dinner. As stereotypical as it may seem — and I do this even when I travel — if eating establishments are supported by those who should know best, pay attention.
- Finally, Sakagura is walking distance to Grand Central Terminal — only two short blocks from a major transportation hub.
So, what are you waiting for?