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Thursday, April 8, 1999
Soaking up the atmosphere enhances the sake experience
Sake pubs tend to have certain similarities of theme running through them. Whether it be a modern expression of these threaded themes or a more classical version, the look, feel and menu are often not all that different. While it all works for a reason, over the last few years there has been a trend toward some refreshingly new atmospheres.
To experience one such place, a short train ride out of the safety of the Yamanote Line to the outback of Kichijoji is required. Emotionally daunting though it may be, it will be worth it in the end. Five minutes from that bustling station, serenely sits Kin no Saru.
Here at Kin no Saru, you'll have plenty of golden opportunities to monkey around with several wonderful sake selections, but first things first: Settle in, perhaps have a beer, look around, peruse the menu, don't rush.
It feels more Asian than simply Japanese; maybe a touch of Thai. It's quite spacious, with indirect lighting from curious lamps accenting natural tones throughout. Low tables sit on tatamilike mats beneath high ceilings of stained bamboo in contrasting patterns. This design was well thought out.
And it is perfect for tasting sake, of which there are about 20 selections. All the sake selections are presented in a serving size for two, but still it goes fast. You could start with honjozo versions of Juyondai (Yamagata) or Isojiman (Shizuoka), two of the best bargains in the country.
Recommended from among the junmai-shu available is strong and solid Buyu (Ibaraki), ricelike and full Denshu (Aomori), layered Kuro-ushi (Wakayama) and seductive Yamatsuru. The ginjo-shu is presented in a take-zutsu, a hollowed bamboo tube, instead of a typical tokkuri (sake flask). Although a bit pricey at 3,000 yen, Suminoe would be the way to go at this level.
Should you want your sake warmed, there have been two selections earmarked for that: dry Koshi no Kagehiro (Niigata) and spicy Gunma Izumi (duh).
There is an o-susume menu, a list of daily recommendations not on the regular menu that comes in handy. From here a whole range of dishes can be drawn. Sashimi, salad, main dishes and even dessert change daily, so check it out in detail.
A good range or grilled fish is supplanted by vegetable and several highly recommendable tofu dishes. Most of the offerings tend toward long, story-book names describing each ingredient and how it was made. It's all in Japanese, and not always crystal clear. Potentially a challenge, but worth taking on as the staff are helpful and willing to make suggestions.
There is plenty of room here; although it is nearly always full and crowded, the space between tables is enough to make you feel a sense of privacy. When the weather is warm, the tall windows are often opened to a swaying grove of tall, green bamboo outside. There is even a small, porchlike section that is open to the sky, if you can reserve it.
The clientele, too, is decidedly atypical. Young kids in funky hats occupy tables next to a group of housewives on the way home from some outing, and couples of all ages dot the tables here and there. The warmth factor is high, Kin no Saru is approachable enough for anyone to be comfortable.
Reservations are not only recommended, they should be made well in advance. Fridays are always full, it seems, and even same-day reservations on a weeknight can be tough.
To get to Kin no Saru, go out of the Koen-guchi exit of Kichijoji Station, and straight along the street just to the right of the Omura Ramen, toward the Marui (0101) department store. Go straight, just to the right of Marui, and Kin no Saru is on the left, just before the park. There is a restaurant just below it and one above it as well; go up the stairs marked with the monkey and you'll be fine. Inokashira Parkside Building 1-21-1, Kichijoji-Minami-cho, Musashino-shi, Tokyo. (0422) 72-8757. Open every day 5:30-11:30 p.m.
Don't forget the Nihon Ginjo-shu Kyokai spring sake tasting April 15, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at the Akasaka Prince Hotel. Hundreds to taste. There is not much time so interested parties should e-mail me or call me at the number below.
Japan Times Ceramics Scene columnist and yakimono expert Rob Yellin and I will be hosting our second sake and Japanese pottery (sake utensils, of course) seminar April 24 at the sake pub Mushu near Shin-Ochanomizu/Awajicho stations. If you are interested in attending, please e-mail, call or fax me at the e-mail address or number below (e-mail preferred). Participation is limited to 45, and is filling up fast. For a free sample of the bimonthly newsletter Sake World, or to be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax your name and address to (03) 3460-8263.
Questions about sake? Ask by e-mail or visit www.sake-world.com
Yamatsuru (Nara Prefecture)
Yamatsuru is made at a small but enthusiastic and proactive kura that is committed to quality. The average milling rate there is 50 percent, and nothing is over 60 percent. Also, all of the alcohol used in making nonjunmai sake is distilled from sake kasu. Although they are small and their sake may take some effort to find, you can try a junmai version of Yamatsuru at Kin no Saru, and the whole range of their offerings as well at the Ginjo-shu Kyokai tasting mentioned last column (and above).
Yamatsuru is a gentle and intuitive sake, with a faint, rounded nose and a richness that is more intuitive than in your face. Clean and a smidgen on the dry side, the finish is tight and smart.