The July edition of Shokuraku, with its nihonshu banzuke (ranking), has fast become my bible for the summer. In this issue 10 brands are featured along with a food pairing from selected purveyors. Top of the list this year is the Nabeshima junmai ginjou (鍋島 純米吟醸) from Saga. I was thrilled by the news because, A, I am immediately fond of a sake whose kanji I can actually read, and B, that one of the food pairings was provided by Sake Dining Honoka in Musashikoyama; a short mama-chari ride from my house. Hoorah!
One minute from the south exit of the newly revamped Musashikoyama station, the small shop is immediately identifiable by the sugidama that hangs from the eaves outside its door and a map of Japan that dominates its exterior wall; upon which wooden plaques bearing the names of the brewers they presently have in stock are affixed. Definitely an auspicious start.
Crossing the threshold, I was warmly greeted by the owner and his wife into their small, but perfectly formed, restaurant. The counter seats 8, at a pinch, and parties of 3 or more are ushered to the second floor tatami room. As I was keen to talk to the owner, I managed to negotiate corner seats at the counter - it would prove to be an intimate arrangement, but the Woodsman and Nashi-san were good natured about the configuration.
An otooshi of white fish and shiso leaf tempura, edamame tofu and marinated summer eggplant arrived, and we immediately set about dissecting the sake list. And what a list it was; 3 pages of detailed tasting notes, including the type of rice used, the percentage it had been milled to, the flavour profiles and the date the bottle was opened - an inspired addition.
Honoka has more than 40 kinds of sake on offer from all over Japan. Every order is a reasonable 550 yen per glass, but half glasses are available at 300 yen, so you can just order for a trial. Why the modest price point?
“First of all I want people to have the chance to taste various kinds of sake, since there are a lot of varieties of Japanese sake. To experience real sake is more important than getting knowledge about sake." said the owner who has been trying to educate people by holding tasting parties or making brewer visiting tours.(Translated from 食楽)
I only wish more sake bar owners shared his philanthropic nature.
The first order of the night was a given: Nabeshima. Though it is not flashy, it has exquisite balance and a lovely clean finish.
The bottle on the right is ‘Houou-biden no shikomi water’, basically its the same water used to produce Houou-biden sake, which Honoka sources from the brewer and serves at 200 yen per bottle - another nice touch.
As it was a Sunday, the specials menu was deemed redundant, so the sashimi moriawase was abridged to chu-toro and iwashi - which were both fatty and delicious. If this is the standard that he is able to serve on a Sunday, I'm keen to come back to see what fish specials he serves during the week. Nevertheless, there was plenty on the regular menu to keep us happy. Saba heshiko-zuke, or mackerel that is pickled in miso and sake white lees (rice husks) and grilled. Strong umami flavours with a big salty kick - great drinking food.
The grilled miso cured camembert was an explosion of molten cheesy goodness - but heed the Woodsman's advise and wait for it to cool. Ouch!
With my first glass drained, it was time of another order. Looking around the room, one can't help but notice that one alcove of Honoka is completely devoted to - Houou-biden (鳳凰美田) in all of its glorious forms. Why? "Because I like it." was the owners droll response. Fair enough. I'll have one off those then. And a very pleasant wee drop it was, too.
While I was happy to get my protein in the form of a Chinese tofu salad (you know it's summer when dishes come garnished with okra - which I personally consider an abberration not a vegetable), the chaps were ordering from the the 'agemono'/ 'niku-ryori' sections of the menu. I recommend detouring to H-nashi-san's blog to get an alternative (read meat-friendly) commentary of the evening.
Keen for the owner to impart some of his wisdom upon me, I deferred to him for the selection of my next drink. After listening to my stilted attempts to explain my preferences, he declared that Kuheiji (九平時), from Aichi, was a good match for my palate. I must say I was more than a little miffed when a bottle of nigori made its way to my side and a sherry size class of its cloudy liquid was poured out in front of me. While it did have the 'clean' flavour that I had a asked for, it was a little on the sweet side for my liking. Great! I got the girlie drink.
Amid all of the good conversation and lashings of libations, we almost forgot to order the house speciality: grilled miso. 25 flavours are available and are listed on the menu in groups of flavour profiles; sweet, fragrant, spicy, to go with sake, etc.. We opted for yuzu, mentaiko (fish roe), kinpira, umeboshi and wasabi, which were grilled and served on wooden paddles. These tasty nuggets of flavour are the perfect accompaniment for drinking sake.
Having downed the nigori in barely two gulps, it was time get back on track. The Raifuku junmai ginjou (来福純米吟醸), from Ibaraki, fit the bill perfectly; light, fragrant and a nice dry finish - a great summer sake.
I immediately regretted not ordering one of these yaki-onigiri. Thankfully, H.Nashi-san took pity on me and offered me a bit of his. Super crunchy on the outside, but soft and moist in the center - I think they were seasoned with shiso leaf. Yum!
With food, drinks and service this good it's easy to see why Honoka, even on a miserable monsoon evening such as this, continues to draw a crowd. For much of the night the shop was filled to capacity with sake drinkers. The owner even allowed a regular to perch on a spare stool in the kitchen, as there was no room at the counter. That's the kind of cozy place Honoka is.
Sake Dining Honoka