sakagura - the hidden jewel

Entering Sakagura sake bar (211 East 43rd street between 2nd & 3rd ave.) in Manhattan is like being in on a delicious little secret. Partly because there is no visible street signage. Partly because it is located underground in a basement of a nondescript office building. We actually walked by it without knowing - and we clearly weren't alone as I noticed others following our same mistake.

The key is to look for the 211 street address and you will discover a small Sakagura sign hiding in the corner of the office lobby window. Upon entering the lobby, we followed a series of discreet signs leading us down a concrete slab stairway into the underground. I mean underground in every sense of the word. You can imagine a Fight Club cracking bones behind one of the closed rooms in this minimally lit, grey walled boiler room type of basement. But when you open the door to Sakagura, the boiler room disappears. New York and its midtown hustle disappears. Entering the door is like walking into a portal to Tokyo. The suspense and effort in locating Sakagura is rewarded with a warm atmosphere full of buzzing patrons and sweet smelling food.

The traditional Japanese interior is dimmed in warm golden light complementing its wood furnishings. Even the bathroom is cleverly hidden in a hut-like structure which blends into the wall like another secret passageway. We sit at the bar in front of shelved rows of sake and below a shinto altar which hovers high on the corner wall. Food is served izakaya style (small tapas dishes specialized to complement sake and other drinks). A good percentage of the customers are Japanese and the atmosphere is noticeably merry (thanks to the sake) and refreshingly unpretentious.

Of course, this whole secret location plot line would not work without great food and Sakagura delivered wonderfully on every little plate. Highlights in our sampling included the super delicate fluke carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and garnished with plum paste and salmon roe. Quality and freshness were top notch and the fish roe literally melted in our mouths without any fishy smell. The Chawanmushi was an equally luxurious cup of melted egg custard infused with shiitake mushrooms, ginko nuts and chicken topped with ponzu sauce. More hearty fare included a harmonious bowl of sliced sashimi mixed with kimchi over rice. As the judge of Japanese authenticity, my wife approved of every single dish and couldn't find one misstep. And she's a tough judge too. Meanwhile, I got tipsy from sipping fine sake from the Niigata region. Supremely smooth with a sneaky buzz effect. The to-die-for dessert was the impossibly rich yet lightly refreshing black sesame brulee. Truly one of the best desserts I've ever eaten.

Undoubtedly quality of the food and sake promotes the bar far more effectively than any street signage. As I emerged back onto the Manhattan streets and disappeared into the unknowing sea of pedestrians, I felt like keeping the Sakagura secret to myself, but the experience was so satisfying that I found myself itching to share it ... discreetly, of course.


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