The sign outside of Sakagura is a perfect representation of the restaurant as a whole: to use one of my favorite clichés, it’s like putting pearls on a pig. Maybe I’m squeamish, but I had my doubts about the place when I discovered I had to walk through an office building, past a security guard, and downstairs to the basement through a cinderblock hallway to get to the dining area. The restaurant was nicely decorated, with lots of bamboo and spot lighting, but I couldn’t help feeling that the dark look was less trendy and more meant to hide the fact that we were sitting in a dank back room.
From the moment the bottle of sake arrived, though, it didn’t matter. My dinner date, Kamran, and I had settled on what was supposed to be some milky, nutty, dense sake that I’d hoped would sit on our stomachs like a glass of Guinness, but our server steered us away from it and instead suggested their seasonal sake. After seeing the giant spread for it in the sake menu, I figured she was just required to push it, but it turned out that light, sweet, and springy was totally befitting to the meal we were about to have.
If anyone can read that label, please do and get back to me.
I was glad our friend had taken us to a genuine sake joint a while back and taught us to drink from boxes, or this would’ve been completely befuddling. In case you’ve never had sake served this way, your server will overfill the box, letting some sake slosh into the bowl. Without looking like a cheapskate, you can totally tip the contents of the bowl back into the box and finish it.
Our first dish was a quad of tori tsukune or chicken meatballs ($6), which I’d really like to become a connoisseur of. I’ve had them from at least five different Asian joints at this point, and I love each more than the last. These were much more meaty than bready, just the way Kamran likes them. (I, on the other hand, am a carb glutton and want everything to taste entirely refined.) But dipped in salt, I could’ve made an entire meal of these things:
Our second dish was the entire reason we went to Sakagura in the first place: the jaga dango, described as “mashed potatoes coated in sweet donut batter fried crisp” ($6). This was real, live donuts 4 dinner:
And it was good, of course, because everything doughed and fried is good. The problem was that the dough overpowered the mashed potatoes. It ended up being one flavor, one color, and one texture:
And I’m not complaining! But I guess I just wanted some butter or some truffle oil thrown in. You know, to make it completely un-Japanese.
Our next dish was not for the faint of heart. It was listed on the menu as “buta kakuni, Sakagura’s special stewed diced pork” ($4.50), which had me expecting a measly spoonful of pork bits, but all of the reviews suggested it was the best thing on the menu. What arrived was a two-inch by two-inch by two-inch square of what resembled brown gelatin. But it was actually a thick layer of fat with a thin layer of pork underneath. Followed by another thick layer of fat and another thin layer of pork. For someone raised to cut every bit of gristle off a hunk of meat, this seemed devilish.
And it tasted it, too. The dab of spicy mustard on the side of the bowl, the sprinkling of microgreens on top, and the sweet liquid the pork was resting in formed one of the most mind-blowingly delicious dishes I’ve ever had. Some of that mind-blowingness may have come from the shock that it didn’t taste as disgusting as it looked, but I can’t argue with the fact that the fat literally melted in our mouths.
When my dumpling was finished, I tried to drink the remainder of the liquid, but it was just too intense for me. And I’m the kind of girl who likes chocolate bars made with 85% cacao, so intense is something I do well. It was just so porky yet so candied, so savory yet so sweet. I asked Kamran to finish my bowl off for me, which left him with this look of delight on his face:
Next, we had the gyu miso nikomi, which was “shredded beef back ribs stewed in miso topped with grated daikon radish” ($6.50), and it was another pleasant surprise. I like beef, and I like radish, but I had no idea what grated radish wetted with some miso broth could do for the texture of some tender beef. And the shisho leaf! I could have eaten that alone by the poundful.
The final savory dish was the tori karaage, “deep fried chunks of chicken marinade in sake and ginger infused soy sauce” ($7). Had it been the only plate we’d had, it would’ve been great, but after fatty pork and radishy beef, it just couldn’t compare. Although I certainly appreciated the lovely lemon sculpture:
After all of that food, we really didn’t have room for dessert, but there was black sesame crème brûlée with black sesame ice cream ($7)!
It was a sort of thin sesame cookie/biscuit/brittle over sesame ice cream over a very complex crème brûlée, but it was all oddly un-sweet. In a way that we liked. It wasn’t a dessert for everyone, certainly, but I doubt that any of their desserts are. Coffee gelatin, anyone?
Truly, it was a fantastic experience. We raved about it for hours and then days and can’t wait to go back.