When you least expect distinction in Shimbashi
By JOHN GAUNTNER
It’s always refreshing to come across a new sake pub, in particular one that breaks the mold of tradition and convention. It’s even more refreshing to come upon one that defies all efforts at categorization, yet still satisfies in every way.
Meet Kyuzuki, which is nestled just behind the old steam locomotive outside of JR Shimbashi Station, the meeting place in Shimbashi. Although this part of town is awash in drinking holes, few are of the Kyuzuki genre.
The interior design is truly interesting without being pretentious. The long root twisting in and out of the handrail for the staircase leading down into the dim space arouses your curiosity. Below, there is a much more ordered and deliberate artistry to the space.
There is a small, low counter for 12 or so, a good spot to sit if you want to check the place out. Not a bad idea, as there is plenty to look at. Try a Malts, served in irresistible opaque, black ceramic mugs of the Mino kiln, with the rough surface wet with condensation from the cold elixir within. And look around.
The walls basically consist of shelves, small individual alcoves, most of which display large, gorgeous plates. As the evening wears on, these are plucked down in a seemingly random order for use as the bearers of sashimi, other delicacies, and Kyuzuki’s specialty, tempura.
Beyond this small main room is a labyrinth of six or eight small cubby holes, well isolated. Separated by short silk curtains, these offer great privacy for groups of two to eight people.
Kyuzuki is not really a sake pub, at least not in the sense that sake is its forte. Yet, they still boast a fine sake menu, both informative and diverse. About 20 selections are available at any given time, but the bottles arranged out front suggest their selection changes regularly, which is always a good sign.
The list runs along the bottom of one page of the menu, with little fanfare. What is available comes in both one- and two-serving tokkuri flasks. A far cry from the traditional shapes, these brightly colored, light-hearted vessels are a refreshing change from the single-glass serving so common in most sake pubs. It makes sharing easier (and a tad more sanitary) as individual small o-choko cups are used.
Presently, some of the more recommended selections are Azumi-Ichi from Saga, Kaika from Tochigi, Suigei from Kochi, as well as reliable Kikuhime from Ishikawa and perennially popular Juyondai from Yamagata. Dry Kubota from Niigata is available in several manifestations of increasing quality by the bottle, as is wonderful Takaisami from Tottori and Kokuryu from Fukui.
You are not forced to drink your sake cold here. Should you want warm sake, two selections have been earmarked for o-kan: Matsumoto from Kyoto and Tenkai from Shimane. Beyond the above menu, there is a separate menu that highlights the sake of two kura. At present these are Tatsuriki of Hyogo and Hakkaisan of Niigata. Four selections from Tatsuriki, each made with a different sake rice, are available for comparison. Hakkaisan is available as well in four manifestations of brewing styles.
There is no need to drink on an empty stomach; that’s hardly good for you. Working with the diverse and full menu here is as much fun as wading through the sake. There is an ever-changing seasonal menu as well as a more permanent list of regular selections. Although the menu is only in Japanese, they also have several courses to make things easy, running from 3,500 yen to 5,500 yen. Why think if you don’t have to?
The specialties here are tempura and handmade soba (and the courses center around these). Although the menu is full of fresh sashimi, salads, vegetable dishes and seafood, at least a little tempura and soba should be worked into the meal as both are truly wonderful here.
Prices for food and drink are very reasonable, especially considering the quality and presentation, not to mention the extremely comfortable atmosphere. Depending on how voracious your appetite for food and sake is, 5 yen,000-6,000 yen per person should be plenty. You’ll be satiated and satisfied with the value.
We stumbled on Kyuzuki while looking for someplace else at about 5:30 p.m. In no time at all, it was packed. Definitely make a reservation (or go early). It’s already been open a year and a half; we were surprised we had not heard of it before.
To get to Kyuzuki, approach the old steam locomotive parked just outside JR Shimbashi Station (take the exit for SL Hiroba). As you approach the locomotive, go just to the left of it, and cross the street behind it. Kyuzuki is there, just to the left of a Family Mart. Dai-ichi Yoshikawa Building, B1F, 2-3-9 Shimbashi, (03) 3503-4490, open daily 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m., closed Sundays and holidays. Check out their Web site (gnavi.joy.ne.jp/gn/jp/g051604s.htm) (in Japanese; click on the link for English).
Aizu Musume’s “Tsurushi” from Fukushima Pref.
Aizu Musume (Fukushima Prefecture)
“Tsurushi” junmaishu nama (unpasteurized) muroka (unfiltered)
Seimai-buai: 50 percent
Aizu Musume is brewed by a very small brewery in Fukushima. Their yearly output is about 200 koku, which is a measly 36 kl — 20,000 1.8-liter bottles. The current president, who is only 27 years old, and his six brewers do everything from growing the rice to delivering the sake. They make several seasonal sake; Tsurushi is one. It hit the shelves Aug. 3. The sake itself is simple, straightforward, clean and dry, with a softness to it, and various flavors vying for your attention in the recesses. As it is nama and muroka, it will be fresher and more brash than average.
You can check out the kura at their home page at village.infoweb.or.jp/~fwjf7933/index0.htm.
Also, a listing of who carries their sake around the country is at village.infoweb.or.jp/~fwjf7933/sakaya.htm
(In Tokyo it is Aji no Machidaya, in Nakano, who will deliver, 03-3389-4551). Tsurushi costs 2,500 yen a bottle, and only a thousand bottles were made.
* * *
Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be doing a joint seminar on sake and pottery Sept. 2, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin-Ochanomizu and Awajicho stations, 6-9 p.m. The evening will include a meal, half a dozen or so good sake, and lectures by Rob and me. Seating is limited. To make a reservation, e-mail me at email@example.com, or fax me at (0467) 23-6895 (e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108.
Oodles of information about sake is available at www.sake-world.com. To be put on a contact list for information on sake-related tours, events, and seminars, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.