Lately I've been very taken with sake. The rice-based beverage is similiar to champagne in many ways, from the deep history of its production to the tradition of creating a house style to the current trend of creating single-vineyard bottlings. However, it is so unique in its flavor profiles that I find myself continually drawn to the indecipherable bottles.
Although sake bars have dotted the city's drinking topography for years, one newcomer, Azasu, on the Lower East Side, has made a name for itself, both in its sake offerings as well as its food. This restauarant is the only place in the city devoted to solely serving cup sake, which are single serving portions rarely found outside Japan. In Japan, cup sakes are often found in vending machines located in busy areas such as train stations (and are often fodder for teenagers' rebellious antics, such as Azasu's owner, who used to try to steal the cups with his friends).
The glass containers are sealed with a peel-off aluminum pop-top and the labels are decorated with eye-catching graphics, ranging from artistic to whimsical. With brief descriptions of the style and amusing names, one often drinks for the packaging as much as the beverage itself. Azasu carries a few sakes that are produced exclusively for the restaurant and will have some new ones coming out in 2015 as well. The best part? The glasses become take-home souvenirs, although staring at numerous cups the next morning are a painful accountabiliity check for your hangover.
Bambi Deer, the first sake sampled, was dry with a slightly creamy note as well as a yeasty, toasty grain essence. A bit of ripe fruit rounded out this adorable glass.
"Devil Boy" was chosen for its contrast to Bambi in its flavor description. And, truth be told, the hysterical label. A bit floral up front, there was a dry finish to it. The description noted acidity and bitterness and while I didn't pick up on the bitter, it was well-balanced and easy to drink.
The last one, "Demon Slayer" is one of the owner's favorites, and it's easy to see why. Crisp and dry, it was light and easy (vverrryyyy easy) to drink.
The food, too, goes beyond many preconceived notions about Japanese cuisine and focuses on bar bites. Maki and miso soup are hard to come by; instead, a fryer works overtime to churn out the alcohol padding. Although Azasu is the casual kid sister to the elegant restaurant Yopparai, the food, while comforting, can be thought-provoking.
Head chef Danielle Sobel fell in love with Japanese cuisine during her first culinary internship. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, her path took her primarily to Japanese restaurants in the city: first an internship at En Brasserie, then Morimoto, Public (her only non-Japanese employer), Yopparai and finally Azasu. In an interview with her, she spoke fervently about the etiquette that is found in the kitchens of these establishments. There is a respect for every utensil and every grain of rice. Knifework is elevated to an art form and vegetables are given the same level of respect as any expensive piece of protein. All cuts are intricate yet simple at the same time.
A must-order are the pancake octopus balls. Fried orbs of dough, studded with octopus, are topped with shaved tuna bonito and kewpie mayo. Parchment paper thin, the bonito magically curls and waves from the heat given off from the balls, making for a mystical-looking (and tasting) bite. The slightly crunchy shell gives way to a creamy interior and the flakes melt quickly away like cotton candy. Texturally, it's a lot of fun to eat.
The Sukiyaki Beef is another winner and one of the chef's favorite items. Thinly sliced beef marinates in a broth and is topped with a raw egg. When swirled in the broth, the yolk gives an unctous richness to the dish.
Pan-fried tofu dumplings are perfectly executed but safe - there are other things on the menu worth giving your stomach space up to.
Need something sweet? Those pancake balls make another appearance at the end of the menu, this time covered with chocolate sauce (and minus the octopus). Reminiscent of a churro, I only wish there was more chocolate to dip these suckers in.
Many other riffs on comfort food top Danielle's list of favorite menu items: Menchi Katsu, which are panko crusted meatballs done up in slider form; Niku Jyaga, which is simmered beef over crinkle cut fries, a playful riff on the American standard of meat and potatoes; and Chicken "Nanban" - fried chicken, the ultimate comfort food (there's also a fish version if fish n' chips makes you wax nostalgic). The menu is extensive and there is much to explore.
Interested in checking out Azasu for yourself? Visit the New York restaurants page on OpenTable for reservations to this delicious joint.