Friday, March 7, 2014

Izakaya Culture Rising

When I visit Japan, Spain, and Italy I'm fascinated to discover a drinking culture that is woven into the social fabric. Social drinking has been part of their everyday lives for centuries. Out of this civilized practice has evolved unique establishments for drinking and eating, where the eating part historically had a minor role as food's sole purpose was to encourage patrons to stay and order more drinks. Today, the cuisine that developed in izakayas, tapas bars, and osterias is as much of a draw as the drinks offered.

Versions of these venerable drinking establishments have been sprouting in the US. Only, of course, given the lack of a drinking culture Stateside, the drinking part is diminished and the establishment, notwithstanding the hype of a drinking atmosphere, is incarnated into an eatery.

Take the izakaya, which seems to be proliferating faster than sushi joints in the San Francisco Bay Area lately, and I would guess in other US metros as well.

At Izakaya Mai in San Mateo, CA, the owner built a train track for his model train to chug above the izakaya.

There is always a wait at Mai's so meanwhile you can be entertained by the train that goes round and round.

The wine and sake list at Izakaya Yuzuki in San Francisco's Mission District, plus colorful cloth napkins and bespoke cedar-wood chopsticks.

 A sake degustation of four to eight different sakes is offered at Izakaya Yuzuki by their wine guy.

The engine room of the izakaya, the grill station, where the grill master furiously fans the hot coals with one hand while turning the skewers with the other hand to cook the yakitori to perfection.

I like to start with crispy renkon chips and a cold sake at Izakaya Ginji in San Mateo, CA.

And fried garlic dipped in mustard sauce is a de rigueur start with an icy mug of beer at Yakitori Kokko.

Tsukemono is a classic izakaya dish. Humble and often overlooked, yet for drinkers it's perfect. This is a version at Izakaya Hashibiro Kou.

The pickled vegetables at Ippuku in Berkeley include an intensely smoked pile of sliced carrots. A surprise treat!

Perhaps my favorite yakitori is the shiso wrapped chicken breast. Done well, like this at Izakaya Ginji, it is a versatile foil for nihonshu or a mineral white Burgundy like Comtes Lafon's Meursault.

To drink with the Lafon I summoned the driest sake in the house. I don't have a problem pairing sake with wine or wine with wine, it's all about getting pleasure from flavor experiences.

Jura wines with their bone-dry, woodsy herbal flavors are just as delicious as Burgundy with izakaya fare. A riveting match was grilled tomatoes with Puffeney's Cuvee Sacha, a blend of Savagnin and Chardonnay from two different vintages. The acidity and minerality of the Jura proved splendid with the juicy, slightly charred, plumpy fresh tomatoes.

Though chicken parts are the stars, pork doesn't take a back seat on an izakaya menu. Skewered pork belly, pork jowls--they're all good.

Gulpable and fun tonkatsu sliders, one order of these suckers is usually not enough!

 Kou, I believe, serves the best tsukune (chicken meatball yakitori) in the big city.

People tend to think white when bringing wine to any Japanese eatery, including an izakaya. Well, I also like to think red. And I'm sure my Japanese drinking buddies would quickly concur, especially a bottle of Jean-Marc Brignot's Envol de la Fille, a chalky, bright Gamay grown in Morgon that was refreshing throughout the meal.

Just recently I opened a bottle of Cornelissen's flagship Magma Rosso 8 made from all Nerello Mascalese grown in a single parcel. Pure and mineral with tingling mashed red fruits that everyone enjoyed.

After a few, patrons insist on sharing the bottles they bring with the staff. The more the merrier. Here with my friends Henry and Jeff who was visiting from Shanghai.

More wine bottles shared, this time with my good friend Takeshi and his wife Satoko visiting from Osaka. Kokko's owner and chef, Kei, is a big fan of Napa wines so we toasted together with these La Sirena wines from Heidi Barrett that I brought.

A yakitori hat trick of chicken breast, quail egg wrapped in bacon (genius!), and shishito peppers. Must-haves in any izakaya.

Izakaya Yuzuki is unique for using koji in their food preparation. Here is their tasty grilled fish cured in koji salt and air-dried.

One of my all-time faves--hotaru ika (firefly squid)--starts appearing on menus this time of the year. Grilled or slimy raw in a soy, sake marinade as in this irresistible dish at Kokko. Awesome with sake!

Matsunotsukasa sake from Shiga, like this arabashiri (free-run), is one of the truest sakes. Amazing balance and depth of flavor. I visited the brewery recently so I can tell you that they make sake there in small lots manually with attention to detail by a dedicated hardworking team.

Another bottle of Matsunotsukasa given to me by my friend Kei Ishida, the brewery's toji or sake master.

Ippuku has a traditional vibe, very popular, and so it's not a place to linger as they turn tables here quickly.

The tatami room at Izakaya Kou is elegant and modern, you're isolated from the action, instead you and your friends can get lost in your own izakaya world, which is really fun for a change.

Often, my friends and I are the last to leave the izakaya. And I can't wait for the next time.

Late night at Nombe in the Mission, San Francisco.

Izakaya featured:

Ippuku - Berkeley, CA

Yakitori Kokko - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Mai - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Yuzuki - San Francisco, CA

Izakaya Ginji - San Mateo, CA

Izakaya Hashibiro Kou - San Francisco, CA

Nombe - San Francisco, CA

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