July 8, 2013 | BITE: My Journal
SakaMai Team Spirits

Uni on crostini with parmesan frizzies is a way to the Insatiable Critic’s heart.

Ever try to get four dames to agree on a spot for dinner? After dozens of “reply all” emails, with each of us invoking hyped-up options, old and new, I leave it to Cassandra to resolve the cackle. Cassandra, like me, eats dinner out six nights a week. She’s high on SakaMai, especially a dish called egg on egg on egg. “With sea urchin,” she says, and uni-mad that I am, she’s got me in line.

A series of bars and drinking salons suggests SakaMai’s emphasis on spirituality.

These days I don’t rush off to invest $60 in round trip taxis to suffer the latest modest, no-credential Lower East Side scheme without significant vibes to entice me. But here I am, early, surrounded by a comely coven of welcoming Barbies.

“Sake tasting?” someone asks.

A flight of sakes lined up for a tasting.

“No thank you,” I respond, pursuing Cassandra’s reservation. There are delighted chirpings. A hostess bids me to follow. Gauzy white curtains between dark painted tables lend a certain ambition to the battered brick. So I’m surprised when she leads me past many empty tables to the farthest rear wall, opposite the glowing bar, to a picnic table with backless benches. I start to protest. Is this some zen exercise in discomfort? Oh, what the hell. I’ll wait and let Cassandra get us moved to a better spot.

Fried lotus root chips provide the essential salt and grease to launch the evening.

I study the cocktail list. The Kohaku sounds serious enough: “The Amber Cocktail with  Hakushu 12 year premium whiskey sour, polished with yuzu and the finest Japanese sugar wasanbon, shaken to a perfect meringue and finished with a brûlée.”

“Not too sweet,” I warn.  The smoky booze does indeed come through, warming my mouth. An order of fried lotus root chips arrives along with the ladies, who don’t seem to notice the torture of the benches. They’re immediately focused on sake. The resident guru has them in his power, delivering Urakasumi at $45 per carafe.

Raddichio, favas and sugar snaps with summer truffles is Cassandra’s idea of a splurge.

Cassandra and I have dueling visions of dinner. She thrills to the sanity of summer truffle and market vegetable salad. I veer toward excessive indulgence, ordering pork buns, torched uni crostini and Southern fried chicken confit.

Juicy braised Mugi Fuji pork belly comes tucked inside Chinese buns, $6 each.

Quickly I discover why I want to be here, as three of us share the juicy pork belly on Chinese buns. Noting the oohs and yums, even Cassandra is driven to nibble a corner of the soft dough. She chopsticks a torched sea urchin from its toasted pallet, spartanly brushing away frizzies of parmigiana reggiano. Guess who finishes off the abandoned toast?  I suppose that’s why my skirtband is elastic and she still wears the form-fitting knit sheaths she bought when she was 20.

I’d come just for sturgeon eggs and uni on lightly scrambled eggs in the sea urchin shell.

Two small tumblers of luscious chawanmushi -- minced duck and oyster mushroom in foie gras custard with dashi glaze -- would never be enough if we hadn’t already ordered too much of everything else. The lobster croquettes with lardo Iberico de Bellota under a cloud of lobster bisque foam are too greasy, even for me.

Gift from the chef: Aioli squid tossed in a salad with garlic blossoms, apple vinaigrette.

But the egg on egg on egg is dazzling -- a generous hill of sturgeon caviar and petals of uni layered on soft scrambled eggs, delivered in a spiny sea urchin shell.  Suddenly, the kitchen seems to have adopted us. The chef sends out homemade tofu, tricked out with bottarga under slivers of shiso, an astonishment of flavors. Another salad not on the menu arrives featuring grilled aioli squid tossed with chard, red mushroom, carrots, baby beets and garlic blossoms in an apple vinaigrette. That pleases all political factions.

Chef Akiyama shows off his remarkable, spiffed up crudi on a rectangle of slate.

The chef isn’t going to let us overlook his sashimi either: A large rectangular slate arrives with a collection of gussied up crudi for each of us: An oyster with yuzu foam. Smoked Japanese red snapper. Octopus topped with red onion, seaweed and a pansy. Abalone with maitake and chanterelle. And rich Tasmanian sea trout with marinated mushrooms.  I vow to skip the chips and croquettes next time and concentrate on this corner of the menu.

Dark meat chicken comes fried in the style of the chef’s home island, with smoked sauce.

After too many gifts, my friends can scarcely eat the Southern fried chicken confit that could bring me back again. It’s boneless dark meat swathed in smoked paprika tarter sauce in the Namban style of chef Takanori Akiyama’s hometown on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu.

We’ve eaten too much to do justice to this 50-minute cooked wild mushroom rice pot.

We’ve favored small plates, from $5 for those chips to $22, but there are entrees too -- $30 to $88 for a 35 day dry-aged bone-in ribeye -- and we’ve ordered the wild mushroom rice pot with kombu dashi as a finale 50 minutes ahead, as required. Now, unanimously, we beg to cancel it. Too late. It’s already arrived.  I manage a spoonful of the legendary Uonuma Koshihikari rice for research sake.  It pales beside the vibrant salmon rice pot I recall vividly at Yopperai around the corner.  Although that could just be lack of appetite.

An icy cold martini with lychee nectar seems a perfect finale for the evening.

None of us is tempted by white chocolate mousse with bitter sake lees. A better dessert by far is the lemony lychee martini with herb-infused vodka and lychee liquor. Our $480 bill reflects over-ambitious ordering but doesn’t include the house’s freebies.  And it doesn’t begin to reflect SakaMai’s ambition as a pub and lounge, a hangout for sake, for shochu, Japanese beer, whiskey and sophisticated cocktails “curated,” as the house puts it, by Angel’s Share mixologist Shingo Gokan. Competing in a Bicardi global cocktail competition against more than 12,000 bartenders from 26 countries, Gokan won first place.

A fire in the black iron stove in the cozy salon out back will be perfect come winter.

I had to go to the website for clues to the fantasies of SakaMai’s owners, and backers and minders of the store, some Japanese, or with Hawaiian upbringing, some raised in e-commerce. You might just peek into the hidden back room. There is a rocking chair, a log fire in the black metal stove, and an Oriental rug on the floor -- a place for drinking sake warm.  Clearly, this team expects to be around come winter.

157 Ludlow Street between Stanton and Rivington. 646 590 0684. Monday through Saturday 6 pm to midnight.  Closed Sunday. $5 shochu pours every Tuesday.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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