Style: New Izakaya
Address: 157 Ludlow (between Stanton & Rivington), New York, NY 10002
Reservations: Yes, Recommended
For those of you who know me you’ve probably wondered why it took me so long to write up SakaMai on Kampai. Well, it’s largely because I have been keeping my izakaya reviews on Yelp! for the most part, but I think it’s time to start migrating them over here. In the interests of full disclosure, I now guest bar tend weekly on Tuesday nights at Sakamai from 7-9pm for Shochu Tuesdays. That said, I believe this review would have been written even if I wasn’t friendly with the owners. It’s a pretty remarkable place.
The space is split into 5 different areas, which each have a unique feel and a unique purpose. The front “tasting bar” is where I host Shochu Tuesdays. Tall tables with stools accommodate about 20 or so drinkers and diners. The bar itself is simple and is really only used for pouring beer, sake, and shochu. The main dining area dominates the middle of the restaurant with seating for 30 or so while the main bar has stools, a couple tall standing tables and several picnic benches. Both of these areas are comfortable and stylish. Where things really get interesting are in the salon – complete with fireplace, couch, low tables, and comfortable arm chairs. This is my favorite place to have an intimate meal. And finally, upstairs there is a private chef’s tasting room. I’ve got dreams of hosting shochu dinner parties up there. One day soon, I’m sure.
Chef Akiyama deserves worlds of credit for coming up with a unique, interesting, and amazingly delicious food menu that carefully blends traditional Japanese culinary tradition with many western flourishes.
The top “must have” and their signature dish is the egg on egg on egg, which is a lovely lightly cooked scrambled egg topped with fresh sea urchin and caviar to make this amazingly umami filled, decadent treat. A friend’s boyfriend recently tried this for the first time and ordered two.
There are so many other dishes worthy of praise that it’s tough to give each its due, but among the current offerings (the menu changes slightly by season) the Market Vegetables with Summer Truffles is actually my favorite dish – and that’s high praise coming from a pork lover like me. Speaking of pork, the Iberico Secreto is an amazing dish. It often sells out so get there early and order it right away. Among the nibbles, the lotus root chips are fantastic – somehow fried crisp brown, yet not oily. They’re serving blistered shishito peppers with smoked Maldon sea salt this summer – another must try.
And if you come with a big group, the large format meals are worth trying, especially the LES steak, which mixes grilled vegetables in with a hearty bone-in steak. The fish rice pot takes 50 minutes to prepare, but it’s worth the wait.
When I first met the SakaMai team, I was struck by their complete dedication to introducing Japanese alcohol to New York City. Sure, there are other sake bars, shochu bars, whiskey bars, and beer bars, but there isn’t one place to try all the best that Japan booze has to offer. SakaMai has carefully pulled together fantastic selections on each and coupled them with the singular Shingo Gokan, the master mixologist behind Angel’s Share (if you don’t know it, I can’t tell you) who won Bacardi’s 2nd Annual Global Legacy Cocktail Competition and has never looked back.
To give you some perspective, the SakaMai food menu is a single page while the drink menu comes in a leather bound binder with entire pages (or more if necessary) dedicated to sake by the glass, sake by the bottle, sake and shochu flights, signature cocktails, shochu, Japanese whiskey, and Japanese beer. Their dedication to Japanese alcohol is so complete that they do not pour wine, non-Japanese beer, or non-Japanese whiskey.
The Verdict: Exceptional
SakaMai may not be the kind of place that you can afford to eat every night, but you’re going to want to. The food, drinks, atmosphere, and staff make this an absolutely perfect night out. I’d like to come up with a quibble so it doesn’t seem like I’m completely biased … okay, here’s one. They pour shochu with a jigger. Having traveled extensively throughout Japan and other izakayas in North America, I’ve never seen this done except in a corporate setting (JAL Sakura Lounge at Narita Airport, for example). Shochu, while artisinal and delicious, is a common man’s drink and a eye gauged pour should be good enough. That would usually be enough to put me off a bar, but everything else is so completely exceptional that I’ll overlook it. And you should too.