Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sakana (肴), Takayama (Gifu ken)

Beginning a special 4-part sequence of ‘places I ate last weekend’ is Sakana, the reasonably-unassuming izakaya in Takayama that I have said before is at least tied for first in my list of favorite-restaurants-in-Japan. Extravagant praise, but I really like it. Really really.

I really like izakaya, for a start. I love the way the menu is segmented into predictable sections (Fried food? Right this way. Raw fish? Coming up!), but only because I love seeing how a creative chef chooses to populate the pre-determined boxes. Rare ingredients, wacky preparations, home-style food done exceptionally well… This reminds me of getting into a new style of music. You start off saying ‘It all sounds the same to me’, but over time you appreciate and love the nuances.

So I guess I like nuanced izakaya, which is a category not listed on gurunavi. Generally speaking, Sakana is in the ‘rare ingredients’ category. A5 Hida beef is always on the menu, special mushrooms, rare fish and their rare eggs, etc. The first time I went, the otoushi (dare I say, the ‘sakana’?) were some special, special kind of ikura, so fresh as to indistinguishable from normal ones, and a wasabi-flavored grated yamaimo. We followed that up with wild boar 3 ways (smoked, grilled…maybe nama-ham’ed?) shot by the owner’s friend. The time after that, the otoushi was a whole grilled negi ("No knives, just bite off pieces. It tastes better that way.") Another time, I ate the aforementioned A5 cow as sashimi, then wrapped around matsutake and grilled. Highest quality, freshest preparation. Makes me quiver. Look at the web page and blog and you may be set a-quiver also.

On my recent visit, it was suggested that the chef/owner, Imai san, is a bit of a salesman. He does tend to spend a lot of time running through the menu and describing the superhuman characteristics of various items of the day. Here’s another point – I didn’t even realize on my first visit that there’s a regular menu, the daily specials are that extensive. You know what though – I like someone who’s going to go into huge detail about what something is and why I should eat it. Even if they profit from my eating it.

Drinks list is big; I didn’t try to explore it. I’m quite happy with the house junmai ginjo. The wine selection was pretty weak, but Japanese drinks were strong, and that’s what you want with your super-fresh Japanese produce anyway. If you’re me.

That's it - the 3 F's again - fully focused on food. I reserved about two weeks ahead to get a counter seat. Imai san thought I was a nut and said so when I arrived, but the counter stayed full while we were there. The table seat another 12-14 people, so it’s not a big place. Get in early and stay late. Bring money - A5 beef is the antithesis of cheap - or else stick with the more normal fare, which is also lovingly selected and prepared.

Sakana (肴), Takayama (Gifu ken)

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