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Gauntner's Japan Times Stories 2000

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Back streets in not-so-far towns



One of the great joys of sake tippling, especially after having searched the town for a while, is finding a new gem of a place. Just when you think you've seen just about any manifestation a sake pub could take, you stumble on something charming and warm, wondering how it could have escaped your attention for so long.

Usually, there is a catch. At Nakamura, the catch is not so bad: It's just a bit out of the way, that's all. Even that depends on your hassle threshold. It's about a seven-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station, just as the myriad of shops begins to wane into residential. Not quite downtown Tokyo, but hardly the sticks.

At Nakamura, it's the atmosphere. It draws you in, although this is far from your average sake pub. It is dark, woody, modern and artistic -- romantic, even. The overall settled and austere feel seduces you right away. The clientele is generally younger and more hip than a pub in, say, Shinbashi or Kanda.

The place isn't big, but size isn't everything. The main counter is a proper bar, with the cabinets behind covered in stained bamboo sliding doors. Seeming regulars hover, engaged in animated conversations with each other and the bartender.

Beyond this is one large table, covered with an arched bamboo canopy, with a large stone-and-flower centerpiece dividing the seating up into four or more almost-intimate sections. There is also a zashiki in the front.

The 20-odd kinds of sake available are not stored in any visible location, unlike most sake pubs, nor do they pour from the bottle in front of you with a great fanfare, which is also different from most places, but the selection is excellent, with a few rarities, and the prices are fair.

This being winter, a tokkuri of warm sake might be just the ticket. They have one selection earmarked for warming on the menu; at present, it's the sturdy, solidly constructed Buyu honjozo from Ibaraki. The earthy flavor with underlying bitter notes comes alive at the slightly warm temperature at which they serve it.

Moving on to chilled sake, the Buyu shiboritate is nice as well. Also, consider complex and delicate Kuro-ushi from Wakayama, Isojiman from Shizuoka, Denshu from Aomori and Kotsuzumi from Hyogo. Light and airy Meikyo Shisui from Nagano always pleases. Less commonly seen in these parts are Hosui from Tokushima and Toyo Bijin from Yamaguchi.

There are many more good sake here; there are also half a dozen shochu and draft beer. Plenty to work with -- and we haven't even mentioned the food yet.

Indeed, the food alone is worth a visit. The presentation is creative and well considered, and in general the flavors are zingy and unique. There are salads with duck, salmon and tofu as themes, and creamy yudofu (1,000 yen) for a light start. The sashimi moriawase, while not voluminous, is gorgeously laid out (2,400 yen per person).

Highly recommended is the bozushi, sushi pressed tightly in a box rather than in the hand. It comes in ika, chutoro, hirame and aji (1,000-1,400 yen), changing seasonally. The ankimo ponzu (800 yen), wakadori tatsuta-age with ume-negi sauce (900 yen), and Shimonita negi with goma-miso sauce (100 yen) are a rich explosion of layered flavors that all enhanced by sake.

To finish, there are several rice dishes, including o-chazuke, and udon as well. There is plenty more, so explore. The menu is in Japanese, but fairly easy to navigate, with large, spacious characters.

Service is formal and proper, but hardly uptight. They care about their food and sake, a point that becomes evident in the service.

Here, a raucous chorus is replaced by mellow conversation suffused with jazz. Standard izakaya fare is eschewed for creative, artistic food. Red paper lanterns are replaced by washi-enclosed candles resting pensively on each table. Nakamura may be of the new sake-pub genre, but it has what it takes to make for an extremely enjoyable sake and dining night.

To get to Nakamura, go out the north exit of Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Inokashira lines. Take a right and walk about three minutes, taking a left when the road ends. You will pass a Body Shop on the right. Walk about 100 meters, and Nakamura is on the right, on the second floor of the MT building. It has no sign, but is in the same building as the well-marked University Club and Naughty's. There are small iron lanterns on every third step with the Nakamura symbol, a stylized fish shape that also graces the noren at the entrance.

Open daily 6 p.m.-midnight, closed Tuesdays. Shimokitazawa MT Building, 2F, 2-37-3 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku, (03) 3466-4020.

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Buyu (Ibaraki Prefecture)
Shiboritate Junmaishu
Nihonshu-do: +2
Acidity: 1.3
Seimai-buai: 55 percent

One of the two offerings from this kura (the other being the warm sake selection), this manifestation of Buyu is shiboritate, or "just pressed." Usually sake is laid down to mellow for a few months to a year before shipping. This allows the flavors to blend and mellow a bit, rounding off the rough edges. Shiboritate sake maintains the brash flavors, in healthy contention with each other, giving the sake a unique appeal.

Buyu has a slightly sweet nose, exuberant in its youth. The flavor is somewhat dry and citruslike overall, with a gentle, underlying bitterness supporting what dances above. Best served just slightly below room temperature.

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The Japan Times: Feb. 10, 2000
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