The Japanese have a reputation for working hard. Really hard. As is many cultures there is a lot of social and family pressure to be successful. But all work and no play can take a toll on a person and the Japanese understand that. Solution? Izakaya.
An Izakaya is a bar that also offers small plates of food to accompany your drink. They are very popular in Japan and why wouldn’t they be? Small, inexpensive plates of delicious food combined with free flowing booze is a recipe for success. There are many different types of Izakayas ranging from somewhat rowdy, more bar-centric places to quieter, somewhat upscale joints and everywhere in between. So whether you’re a buttoned up business man having drinks and a bite after work (very common) or a group of students looking for a night on the town, there’s an Izakaya for you.
Looking to experience the Izakaya phenomenon but just don’t have time to hop a plane to Japan for weekend? Head to Sake Bar Hagi.
The hubby and I are head over heels in love with Sake Bar Hagi at the moment. We stopped in for an early dinner one Saturday around 5:30. Sound really early? The place was already packed. They open at 5, fill up immediately, then go on a wait list for the rest of the evening. But don’t let this discourage you. It’s worth it. I promise.
First, find the place. There’s a sushi joint next door but Sake Bar Hagi is actually in the basement, so find the sign and head below street level. There is a pad of paper next to the door with a space for you to write your name and phone number. Use it as soon as you get there. We were called about 20 minutes after putting our name down. We were grabbing a happy hour drink at a nearby bar and asked them to hold the table for a few minutes. When we arrived our table was waiting for us despite the line out the door and up the stairs to street level. Nice.
We sat down at a little table for two and were greeted enthusiastically by our waiter who handed us the menus and gave us a few minutes to peruse them. We looked at the menu, then at each other, then back to the menu in silence. To say we were overwhelmed would be an understatement. The sake menu alone was massive. After about 5 minutes the hubby threw up his hands and said, “You drive”, so I did.
I ordered the house sake, cold, because when in doubt, order the house anything. Then I put the menu down for a second and decided to order most of our meal off the chalkboard menu on the wall. There was about a dozen specials listed so I chose the ones that made my mouth water, then threw in a few skewers of chicken skin and some fried octopus balls off the main menu. I always order the chicken skin yakitori, because really, why wouldn’t you?
We had:::: The sea urchin special, the fried soft shell shrimp special, the squid in liver sauce special and the yakitori and fried octopus balls off the menu. Most of the special dishes were around $7 each, the yakitori was around a buck or two per skewer and the octopus balls (takoyaki) were around $6. With two rounds of sake our bill came right out to around $50. Not too shabby.
The food was amazing. The sea urchin was delicious and the portion was enormous for the price. It’s so rich and creamy that it was the perfect thing to keep coming back to between other plates. A little shredded daikon and a dollop of sea urchin is such a treat for your senses.
The fried soft shell shrimp was the perfect thing to add some crunch to the meal. The fried head was my favorite as it had such a different and more intense shrimp flavor than the rest of the body. Nick said he loved the flavor but wasn’t super keen on eating the shell and all. I didn’t mind it. It was very thin and delicate and was hardly noticeable.
The chicken skin yakitori wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was still great. How can crispy chicken skin on a stick NOT be great?
The octopus balls (takoyaki) were a great way to end the meal. They were piping hot, fluffy and substantial. I didn’t taste a whole lot of octopus flavor in them but I think their roll is more of a savory fried dough ball and less of a way to showcase delicate seafood. I’d get them again in a heartbeat.
If we wanted to stuff ourselves we could have added a rice ball or some udon to our meal. We also could have thrown in some more yakitori for mere pocket change, but we were satisfied and had a great time so we decided to save room for bar hopping beers and maybe a dirty water dog along the way (p.s. we ended up staying at Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen for a while and I highly recommend the place…free dogs with cheap beer and some great bartenders).
Drink, nibble, drink nibble. They’ll happily bring the menu back to you a bunch of times and they don’t mind you ordering a plate here or a plate there. It’s sort of the whole idea.
Food comes out when it’s ready so be prepared to just have random plates hit your table. And share!
Go out on a limb and try something new. At $6 or $7 a pop you can’t lose by ordering something crazy.
If you’re overwhelmed by the sheer number of dishes on the menu narrow your search by ordering off the specials board.