Japan Times Archives – 2000, John Guantner

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2000/11/09

More the merrier at Shinjuku’s Zonbun

By JOHN GAUNTNER

Shinjuku can be daunting, to say the least. Especially when you are in a group, looking for a place to hang and eat and drink. Where to begin looking can be as problematic as finding a place the whole group can fit. Add the prospect of everyone enjoying good sake, and you might as well throw in the o-shibori.

Well, not quite yet. You do have a couple of options, and one of those is Zonbun, extremely close to JR Shinjuku Station. Zonbun is not quite your typical sake pub; it’s a well-done, comfortable space, both unique and functional.

Although you get off the elevator on the seventh floor, you feel as if you are in a well-kept Japanese country home. The interior is a solid, classy and believable reconstruction of post-and-beam architecture, with white, earthen walls and thick, polished wooden posts running the walls and ceiling. Large rooms are sectioned off into smaller private rooms by translucent shoji (removable for larger parties).

It is hard to tell how many people could fit in the place, but it is deceptively large. In spite of that, there is a great sense of privacy as Zonbun comprises nooks and crannies connected by narrow aisles and narrower staircases. Shadows vie with light in a timeless duel for your attention. Well-placed stones indicate paths here and there. Admittedly, it’s all a bit contrived, but still comfortable.

It’s also a wonderful venue for groups of any size. You can be on your own in a cool atmosphere, enjoying food and libation. What you will not get is that one-to-one bonding with the man behind the counter who will remember your name, who will give you an “Oh!” of feigned surprise when you walk in the door, telling you what is really fresh today, and what new sake is just in.

No, here, you’ll never see the folks behind the scenes, and the dark country interior is a bit at odds with some of the more high-tech aspects of the place. The staff flitter about in stylish uniforms, wearing headsets to talk to each other across the two floors. To order, you push a button on your table, relaying a radio-control signal to the staff. But they’re fairly forgivable concessions to modern times.

The food is creative, interesting and diverse. A bit of feeling is missing, however. You ding your waiter/waitress, who obediently scampers in, headset and all. You relay the order, and he or she retreats with a bow. Within minutes — sometimes sooner — your order is brought out to you.

Some may say it seems a bit mass-produced, or like “family restaurant” food. In truth, this impression is likely the result of the radio-control buttons and headsets and swiftness of fulfillment. It is said that many local Shinjuku chefs come here to wind down after they get off work. That alone should say something.

What’s on the menu is mostly Japanese and Chinese influenced, but with a special pasta menu as well. Standard fare like kushiyaki, sashimi and oden are altered a bit to lend an artistic funkiness to the presentation and flavor. Mixed in the menu are more curious dishes like renkon burger with orange sauce, and gyutan (tongue) shioyaki with herb sauce. Should you not be into thinking, there are several courses available as well. And get this: it’s in English too.

The sake selection is perfect for the venue. There are perhaps 30 selections, and all of them are tasty, dependable and reasonably priced. The sake is served in dark, earthen “katakuchi,” tall cuplike vessels with a lip for pouring, drunk from small, artistic o-choko glasses.

The sake menu itself is not in English, but the names are like good friends: Juyondai (Yamagata), Kokuryu (Fukui), Kaiun (Shizuoka) and Tedorigawa “Yoshidakura” (Ishikawa) will let no one down, ever. For tanrei-karakuchi (dry and clean) sake fans, Niigata classics Kubota and Shimeharizuru are here. Must tries include Suwa Izumi (Tottori), Eiko Fuji (Yamagata) and Okuharima (Hyogo).

There are more recognizable names, like Masumi (Nagano) and Urakasumi (Miyagi). One or two sake are specially earmarked for warming. Indeed, there is plenty here to keep you and your group happy for hours. Most sake is in the wonderfully reasonable 600 yen to 900 yen range. For this reason, Zonbun can get crowded, so call ahead. Sake-sipping night-owls should note the long business hours.

To get to Zonbun, leave the A1 exit of Shinjuku Sanchome Station on the Marunouchi Line, taking a right at the top of the stairs. Take a right again at the corner, and a right again when you reach the street with the Nikon shop on the far corner. Zonbun is on the seventh floor of the building on the right with the tendon shop on the first floor. Alternatively, from JR Shinjuku Station, exit the mammoth East Exit, and take a right, so that you are walking down the street bordering the station. You will be walking away from Studio Alta and its huge screen. Take a left at the Tokai Bank, and walk about 75 meters; Zonbun will be on your left. 3-31-3 Shinjuku; (03) 5367-3633. Open 5 p.m.-5 a.m. Reservations recommended during potential peak hours.

Ichi no Kura

“Mukansa Karakuchi”
Junmai-shu
Nihonshu-do: +1-+3
Acidity: 1.4-1.6
Seimai-buai: 55 percent

A nice citrus and cantaloupelike melon-laced nose, short-lived though it might be. The softer flavor in the middle of the palate is surrounded by sharper, tighter, acid-driven components. Dry overall as the “Karakuchi” label implies, yet more flavor, fuller and richer, becomes apparent after a few seconds. Very easy to drink, unobtrusive and simple.

“Mukansa” refers to sake that was not submitted for a tax-bolstered ranking of Special Class or First Class, a ranking system that went out of use 12 years ago. The implication is that the sake is good, but we don’t need the government to tell us so, and it is cheaper for the consumer in the end. There is an “Amakuchi” (sweet) version of this Mukansa as well.

Ichinokura is a name to remember as it makes good, dependable sake that is liked by almost anyone. The name refers to the founding of the company in 1973, when four local breweries bonded together as one to survive. Rather than take one of the four names over the other three, the totally new name reflects that the four came together as one.

* * *

Japan Times Ceramics Scene writer and Japanese pottery expert Robert Yellin and I will be holding a seminar Nov. 18, at the sake pub Mushu in Awajicho, near Shin Ochanomizu/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 and fills up fast. To make a reservation, e-mail me or fax me at the address and/or number below (e-mail preferred), or call Mushu at (03) 3255-1108. Details will be provided by e-mail later.

On Nov. 12, I will be leading a tour of a Tokyo-area brewery. If you are interested, please contact me by e-mail or fax (contact information below). Participation is free, except for train fare and anything you choose to spend eating and drinking afterward.

Sign up for a free sake-related e-mail newsletter 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 sakeguy@gol.com, or fax your name and address to (0467) 23-6895.