Who would guess that beyond this nondescript midtown lobby, past the elevators and building directory and down an unmarked flight of stairs, thrives a cozy sake bar serving authentic Japanese pub food?
It's Sakagura. A self-proclaimed 'hidden jewel,' a little bit of New York magic, and an ideal spot to settle in on a cold January evening.
This intimidating character presides over the back dining room - perhaps a warning of the ugliness that might ensue after too many glasses of sake? Just a guess.
From our table's vantage point, though, he appeared less threatening.
And so, ignoring his grimace, we selected two sakes from Sakagura's list of more than 200 varieties - one served cold, the other hot. Much sake-induced giggling and silliness followed, but luckily none of us ended up looking like the hovering ghoul.
A succession of small plates followed, starting with a salad of paper-thin daikon ribbons topped with a spicy cod fish roe mayonnaise, pea shoots, chiffonade of shiso and nori, and radish matchsticks. The mayonnaise reminded me of taramasalata, the Greek fish roe meze, and struck a perfect balance of salty, spicy, smoky, and sweet.
Yuba Shumai: succulent dumplings filled with minced pork, shrimp, and lotus root, wrapped in paper-thin bean curd sheets and served with a lively ponzu sauce.
A special of seared duck breast and scallions with smoked sea salt.
Tori Tsukune: juicy chicken meat balls glazed with teriyaki sauce.
A favorite at the table: Gyu Miso Nikomi, braised beef ribs in a rich, sweet miso broth, topped with refreshing grated daikon and sliced scallion.
Sake Manju: a bun made with sake lees and stuffed with red beans, accompanied by green tea sorbet and a black sesame tuile. (Sake lees, aka sake kasu, is a thick rice paste that remains at the end of the sake-making process. It has a deep umami flavor, similar to miso, but sweeter.)
Refreshing green tea ice cream - herbaceous with a hint of bitterness, and not too sweet.
When we finally emerged from our cozy underground cocoon, full-bellied and content, we were greeted by softly falling snowflakes, dusted sidewalks, and the hush that accompanies them.