Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jizake Bar Zen, Kyoto (地酒BAR 膳)

I almost missed Zen, several times. First, the location on the googlemapz is wrong - the owner has moved it four times since it opened, and one of those was recently (from Gion, as shown on the map, to Oike; he said something like he's 'following the foot traffic').  Second, the building is obscure. I knew it was on the 5th floor of a 5-story building. I looked at the exterior from street level, saw the girl's bar on the 4th, and that was it. It was only after I got farther down the street that something clicked in my head about being sure that it was the right building. When I turned around I saw the 5th-floor windows sloping back hard away from the street, and also the rows and rows of big sake bottles lining them.

For an ex-truck driver named after the notoriously declasse hairstyle he used to sport, Punch has put together a heck of a classy sake bar. He must be making a living, but with 4 moves and the low prices, I kinda worry about him. The single room is very moody, with wooden platforms at slightly different heights, pebbles, bamboo, modern furniture, and a laptop humming away on the communal table. Behind the counter is a classical guitar; Punch was taking lessons for a while, but as soon as I evinced interest he passed it right over the counter and didn't complain a bit as I noodled on it for the next hour while we talked.

Here's the setup, and I think this sort of says it all. A nice pottery cup, a glass of water, you know what the bottle is? That's right, he starts every drinker off with a bottle of Japan's favorite hangover prophylactic, turmeric. (If you're already hung over, either that cabbage stuff or else good old fashioned caffeine drinks must be more popular.)  I think this is both kind and demonstrative of serious intent.

Let's dispense with one other thing too - you are NOT here to eat. You are here to drink. There was a small dish of whole dried firefly squid, and then there was as much as you wanted to eat of these pre-wrapped salty snacks - kaki-pi, cheez-kama, little dried fish, wasabi squid. I'm not complaining (and the wasabi dried squid was delicious!). This is what you're in for when you visit - outstanding sake, reasonable prices, no food to speak of. You would be foolish to rule Zen out on the basis of the food.

Here's what I drank. Up-left and down-right are two varieties of Furosen, my new favorite brewer (no, seriously. I drank some a few days later and it was just as good). This is interesting - Punch gets all his sake from stores, just like you and me (one difference is that he buys them and asks them to store them at 0 degrees for him, sometimes for years; a lot of his stuff is aged, but not in a koshu sense). So he hasn't cultivated the special brewery relationships that a lot of people tout. He just focuses on getting awesome sake. He enjoys saying that he's probably the biggest Furosen bar in Japan, and he says it with a laugh that indicates he know just how small a kingdom he lords over.

Up-right, I was talking about the great shop near my apartment and mentioned that Senkin is one of the brands they have (as well as the thing that Mom and Dad really liked last month), so I got this - if I understood correctly, it's so old that it was made by the prior brewer. Punch gave me the label so I could go in and show it to them. Bottom left is a Miyozakura. These were all just great; I'm a little better able to explain what I like now, and I guess an attentive and smart sake guy can line up with that. On the other hand, if Furosen is his favorite, then we're pretty similar taste-wise, so it's easy. It strikes me that the label theory holds true here - you can tell from the attention paid to the logos that they're going to be good.

Since I complain frequently about pricing, let me close with a note on that. I don't even want to tell you how much I paid here, because I think it was so little. When you consider the quality of what he's pouring, especially the aged stuff, and the atmosphere, and the service, this is the real deal. It holds its own with any sake bar in the world.

Of course I can only speak for Japan, but it's well into the top echelon in Japan, and you'll cut me some slack on the generalization, won't you?


  1. You must have seen it already but just in case
    You were featured in his blog.

  2. I had not seen it, thanks, but he was certainly promising to post it. First time I've had an owner set up accessories, ask me to pose, and say he would use the picture on HIS blog!