Thursday, November 4, 2010

, Ikejiri Ohashi

Stop me if you've read this one before. Several years ago I saw a post by a foreign visitor that talked about a restaurant he'd visitied and how aMAZing it was. But, he said, the owner's wife had asked him not to blog about it. Too secret. Too great. So he just posted a picture of a nearby street. My immediate thought was 'Bitch, I know that street,' so I spent an enjoyable hour on my bike finding the restaurant. In the end, it wasn't really where he was implying, and I only found it after eating in another restaurant and asking about it. They told me it was a crappy place and seemed surprised that someone eating with them would be asking about it. I've gone by multiple times since then, and I concur. No need to eat there.  Well, I'm pulling a bit of the same stunt here, because I'm pretty sure the reclusive mad-scientist sake-otaku master at this place would be just as happy not being posted about. At least I'm telling you where it is; if you really want to go, you'll find it in about 10 seconds.

I'm still not sure if it's by introduction only. Certainly I'm told that when you call to reserve (at least a week ahead for popular nights, says mama), the first question will be "Have you been here before?" This is because they have a certain focus, and a peculiar system. They also have a high ceiling in this, the very drab main room, and shelves stocked with bottles, thereupon surmounted by proud brewery banners. The lighting is bad, the tables are incredibly close, the atmopshere could possibly be described as strained...I loved it.

It comes down to the fridge, doesn't it? Here's the system: for one low, low fee, you say what you want to drink, and the master pours it for you. You drink it, then you start again (with the 'say' step, not the 'pay' step). No limits, as far as we could tell.

The Woodsman and I agreed it was better not to piss anyone off, so I didn't get any other shots of the fridge. This is half of the main one, and there are two subsidiary fridges as well. I'm sure you can recognize a few labels in here. I shan't dwell on how great it is.

Guess what else is included in that low, low fee. That's right, the food. The master's mom brings a steady stream of things to eat. The beans were delicious - a Nagano specialty (the family is from there) of green soy beans that are cooked just until crunchy. Mom's home-made red turnip pickles (incidentally, I always thought the red was added coloring, but it seems it's from the skin. And there are some pickling in my fridge right now). Salmon eggs. Radish in the 'Nara-zuke' style, which means it's been pickled in sake lees and left for a couple years to get brown. Mmmmmmmm.

But of course it's not just snacks. This food is included too - good sashimi plate, nimono and grilled fish to share, bowl of chicken vegetable soup for each person. It bears mention - the broth on the nimono and chicken soup was incredible. Mama was very happy to talk about how much trouble they are; the nimono is based on snapper heads, and she gave me a long monologue on how much scum comes off the broth before it's clear. Then she brought us another bowl. Thanks for the efforts!

I assume you could specify that you're allergic to something, but we made no mention of anything; all this food just arrived.

Here, it's almost everything we drank. The first and last look like repeats since you can't squeeze 7 pictures into eight spaces, and I didn't get a picture of the first sake. That un-shown one sums up the ethic here - sparkling usu-nigori from Dassai, but not the one in the shops - one that's brewed specifically for the master here, who went into a reverie about how long he's known them and how happy he is with their intelligence and success. I hope you'll join me in saying that Dassai is a bit overexposed - they seem to be touching the edge of the big leagues, straddling the line between jizake and mass production, and that straddle must be chafing, because their flagship '50' is pretty bland these days. This must hark back to the quality that made them famous. After that I'm sure you can recognize Tenpoichi, Naraman, Amabuki (in a special 55% Omachi version, woo hoo), Kudokijozu (not Bakuren, thankfully), Furosen (the same aged stuff I drank at Zen a few nights before) and Okuharima (19BY Yamahai kanzake; a heck of a way to finish the night). This barely scratches the surface of the fridge; we mostly let the master pick, although he did ask before each round what style we wanted. It's sort of charming how he pours everything into these 180ml-ish clear bottles and slaps a temporary paper label on them. Really, I don't think there's a limit, but when the food runs out it must get a little hard to keep ordering. On the other hand, I felt like we were done and it was time to go, but when I tried to ask the master a sake-related question he just said 'OK' and wandered off to get a pour of something in the style I was asking about.

Cast your eyes skyward again and ask how this can be so good, yet so cheap. It won't be to everyone's tastes - for example, if you don't drink sake...ah, never mind. Obviously. It's also a reserved sort of place, so keep a lid on it if you go, OK? I would certainly not take my work colleagues here, much as they like sake. That makes it a little painful since it's nice to brag about deep oyaji places to them, but this is a secret worth keeping.

Just you and me, OK?