Sunday, July 3, 2016

Two Evenings at a Sake Bar

When I spotted the giant sugidama hanging outside an unmarked shop at St Francis' Yard, I was curious to know what's inside. Sugidama, which means cedar sphere in Japanese, was made with numerous trimmed cedar needles formed into a sphere-shaped decoration and often hangs outside sake breweries across Japan. Traditionally, it marked the beginning and end of the annual sake production in winter, as the color of the sugidama gradually changes from green to brown.

I have never seen one in Hong Kong before, and I assumed the shop is probably some serious sake place that I have not heard of. Later I found out it is an izakaya called Sake Beya Masu, owned by Louis, a certified sake connoisseur by training and a local distributor by trade. Out of curiosity, I dropped by for a visit on one Friday evening and loved the food and the atmosphere, so a few days later, we went back again for a sake pairing dinner hosted by a visiting brewery owner from Niigata Prefecture.

First night the three of us basically just went through the majority of their a la carte menu with a few seasonal sake served by glass. We pretty much enjoyed everything that was served that night, but a few dishes did stand out. The hamo tempura roll was done with the seasonal pike conger eel rolled with shiso leaves, then dipped in batter and deep-fried. It was served with a dab of the tangy plum sauce on the side. The sweetfish, or ayu in Japanese, was grilled and served with a generous smear of tade miso on top.

The izakaya is cozy with dark wooden furniture, with only a couple tables and a long bar that can seat four. I felt like sitting in one of those secret speakeasy joints at a side alley in Tokyo. We specifically asked Louis for a few rarer sakes to try, especially the seasonal selection, and he recommended us a couple which we enjoyed much. We finished our meal with a small serving of rice steamed on the surf clam shell and a bowl of green tea soba in hot broth, both were delicious and comforting.

A few days later we went back to the same spot when Mr Keiji Ichishima, the 7th generation owner of the Ichishima brewery from Niigata was in town to promote their line of sakes with a special dinner at the restaurant. It's a compact 7-course menu consists of small plates of otsumami, essentially bar snacks.

Tomorokoshi Mentai-age - Deep-fried Sweet Corns with Spicy Cod Roes
Tsubo no Nikogori - Cockles Aspic
Anago Okowa - Seawater Eel with Sticky Rice
We thought we went through quite a bit of their a la carte menu the other day, but the majority of the dishes were new to us. I thought the pair of Australian oysters with the sea-water flavor brought out the sweetness of the cup of sake perfectly. Tsubu no Nikogori (cockles aspic) was an interesting dish with the cockles cooked in dashi then turned into jelly-form with agar and served cold. It's quite tasty once you got over the fact that it's a savory jelly. Anago Okowa was another unusual dish, with 2 pieces of "sushi" made with sticky rice topped with a thin slice of seawater eel wrapped in bamboo leaves.

Six different types of sake were introduced to us by Keiji-san and served along with the dishes. We began with a bottle of Hidematsu Aka, part of the special series sold only at the brewery. Not bad for a basic Honjozo sake, but my favorite of the evening was the Ginnoyorokobi Daiginjo, made with the locally-grown Koshitanrei (越淡麗) rice with a 35% polishing ratio. It has good floral fragrance, refreshing and well-balanced on the palate and a lingering dry aftertaste.

While I prefer the place to be quiet and cozy like our first visit, it was great drinking and eating with a full house, when everyone seems to be having a jubilant time and turned up the volume once we had a few cups to drink. A good sign of a fabulous meal and a fun night.

When? June 22 2016
Where? Sake Beya Masu, G/F, 2 Sun Street, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Tsubu no Nikogori - Cockles Aspic
(all from Ichishima Shuzo, Niigata Prefecture 新潟県 市島酒造)
Hidematsu Aka Honjozo,  秀松(朱)本釀造
Ginnoyorokobi Daiginjo 吟の慶 大吟醸
Yume Shumai Ginjo 夢 純米吟醸
Omon Daiginjo 王紋 大吟醸
Yume Shumai 夢 純米
Yume Shumai Daiginjo 夢 純米大吟醸

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