Friday night in Shinbashi and the multitude of izakaya, sushi shops, tachinomi-ya and yakitori joints are heaving with salarymen and OLs (office ladies.) Walking up and down the streets off the main Shinbashi Nishiguchi Dōri we look into each establishment we pass, waiting for one to take our fancy. Many do, all are full. The izakaya that look good probably are. That being the case, those office workers that frequent the area are already packed into them, frothy beer and potent shōchū flowing freely. Hungry, thirsty, I begin to wonder if we’ll find a place able to accommodate us. Thankfully, as we pass Nozaki Saketen I notice that several customers in the doorway are in fact paying for their meals and about to leave. The place looks promising enough, narrow shop front of glass and a sign declaring the izakaya to be a “jizake senmon”, or “sake specialist”. More importantly there’s a table available.
The table we are led to, after being warmly greeted, is tiny, one of four or five along the right wall, with barely enough room to squeeze into my chair. Once seated I feel something at my back, and looking over my shoulder see pipes – water I suppose – protruding from the wall, covered in white towels in order to pad them out and make them more comfortable. Running along the left side is a counter, the low “wall” separating it from the open kitchen, above which hang numerous handwritten menu
entries on strips of white paper, is plastered with sake labels. To the side of the kitchen a glowing cooler stands, bottles of nicely chilling sake lined up within. Nozaki Saketen is not large, being made up of a narrow ground floor and squarer basement level, and on this occasion very busy, very lively and very warm.
Thirsty, the first couple of beers are finished before we’ve even ordered our meal, and the o-toshi of kabu (turnip) with chicken mince untouched. When the waitress informs us that our visit is limited to a two-hour period, we hasten to choose. The service brisk, yet polite, our chosen dishes arrive in quick succession. So much so that we soon struggle to fit them on to the table. A large bowl of salad, immediately impressive by dint of its size and good looks, consisting of long, thin slices of daikon, cucumber and tomato upon which is heaped negi-toro (mashed raw tuna fish) and large dollop of mayonnaise. Over this interesting, delicious salad we poured a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi, complimenting the tuna perfectly, and adding something special to the flavour of the salad itself. Moist and crunchy, this unusual take on negi-toro don (bowl of rice with negi-toro on top) is easy to recommend. A selection of pickles – aubergine, cucumber and daikon – accompanies my first glass of Dewazakura, a light, drinkable sake of which many kinds and qualities are available. The soft, fluffy texture of the enormous dashi-maki tamago (egg roll) in fish stock with grated daikon and mayonnaise contrasts well with the crunchy salad and pickles.
Sipping on the pure-as-water Asamayama, a sake from Gunma prefecture, I take in the photos, hanging on the wall, of various stages in the sake making process. Several of the staff of the izakaya are themselves visible in said photos. A grilled fish head of tai (sea bream) soon arrives. Not spectacular, but tasty enough and certainly fresh, it has a distinctly home-cooked feel to it. Tender, only lightly seared, chicken sasami in a yuzu (citron) and green chili pepper sauce introduces a richer flavour to the meal, although the portion of this dish is considerably less generous than those that had come before. Two long skewers of chicken liver in tare sauce, kushiyaki rebā tare, arrive, as does a glass of excellent Masaku Junmai, and while the sake is quite gorgeous, the liver seems over cooked and thus too dry. The waitress hurries by with a fantastic looking bowl of soba (buckwheat noodles) and I notice a bottle of Masumi looking lonely in the cooler, but we are full, and I am tipsy…