Since I have been eating a lot of Japanese recently (I went to Sushi of Gari on Friday for the second time in 2 weeks and it was kick ass), I thought I would check out Saka Gura, which I had heard about here and elsewhere from various trusted chowhound sources. The Sake Club is located in what can only be described as one of the most bizarre restaurant locations in Manhattan: the basement of a nondescript midtown corporate building. As you go down two flights of stairs past a security guard reading the Post, it seems more probable that you are about to check out the boiler room than sit down for a top notch Japanese meal. But there it is. A long, elevated Sake bar runs down the left hand side of the joint where there are lots of empty bottles, a lot of people speaking Japanese, and strips of bamboo nailed into the concrete block wall that remind you that you are in the basement. Its fairly clear that this is going to be a funkier and less aesthetically clean dining experience than eating at Sushi Yasuda, which is literally right across the street. For better or worse this establishment is not listed in Zagats, so you have to go their website to even find where they are (the white pages work too: 211 East 43rd).
While there appears to be every kind of sake known to humanity on the menu, thankfully, for the sake ignorant like me, there are also various sake tasting samplers that enable you to try 4 different sakes in one sitting. I did 2 of the high end samplers-#8 ($22) and #7 ($17). The $17 tasting sampler was extraordinary. Sake doesn't have Western wine's reputation for subtely. I am not sure if this is correct or not, since I haven't tried that many sakes yet. So far, though, I would say that sake has almost as much internal variety of taste as scotch whisky-Cadenheads cask strength Laphroig tastes very different from the more ubiquitously available bottle, tastes very different from Springbank etc. Saka Gura is a learning experience and a good place to learn. Two sakes that were part of the $17 taster Itten (yidian (a little in Chinese)) and Iyo Densetsu were so different from the generic $11/bottle sake that you would buy at a liquor store in NYC that it was shocking. Both were dry, full and floral and excellent, though I don't think I have any kind of vocabulary for accurately describing the taste. In either case they were both very wonderful.
The food is in some ways traditionally Japanese, though not in the generic way that most Americans think of Japanese food-tempura, yakitori, udon and sushi. Think two fried rice balls with bonito shavings on top. The menu consists of basically two sections-the main part offers a massive number of different more traditional dishes (too long to describe here), and a back page of recommended daily specials. I did the latter. Now if you like weird and different (and I love weird) than you will adore Saka Gura, because its relatively unlike most food you have ever eaten before-unless you grew up in the Kanto region or Guangzhou (I grew up in NJ). The notion of different courses coming in succession appears to be an anathema at Saka Gura-what you order comes all at once. To start, I tried roasted dried sardine sheets. These were porous long thin strips of sardines which you dipped in a sauce of home made mayonnaise sitting in a small pool of soy sauce. Strangely wonderful and unlike anything else I have eaten before. The second dish I ordered was deep fried lily bulbs and shrimp in miso sauce all within a hollowed out eggplant. Unfortunately, the miso sauce kind of overpowered everything. Third was sea urchin wrapped in fluke with 2 different kinds of seaweed and a lemon-basil sauce and topped with watercress. This was definitely one of the better things I have eaten this year, in part because the sea urchin appears to be really fresh at the moment in NYC. But the combination of flavors was so delicate and sensuous: the lemon and the basil were perfect for the sea urchin. At that point I was still hungry so I ordered two more dishes: salt broiled mackerel pike & deep friend octopus and asparagus in sesame vinegar. The mackerel pike came whole with no innards removed and was a real bone picking fest. Lemon and soy sauce accompanied. Overall, good but not great. The fried octopus was fabulous, however. The octopus had been fried to perfection and sesame vinegar, which I had never heard of let alone tried before, was a brilliant accompaniment. As meals go this was a total trip. Not as delicate or as creative food as you will find at Sushi of Gari or Sugiyama, but for $30-40 for 4-5 things, it's a cheap and educational trip.