The anticipation began when I learned that George Kao, who some of you may know from his workshops at the Japanese Culinary Center, was part of a team opening SakaMai, a new sake lounge in the Lower East Side. George is a guy whose palate I really respect, and in fact he was the one who first turned me onto Kajitsu which went on to become one of my favorite restaurants in NYC (until the chef departed for greener pastures earlier this year, but I digress). So as soon as I heard he was involved with SakaMai my expectations were elevated by several notches. And now, after having visited it for the first time I’m pleased to report it lives up to everything I was hoping it would be.
Apparently they’ve had about a week of a soft opening with the official grand opening scheduled for tonight, but since I had been checking OpenTable daily, I lucked into seeing that a bunch of seatings opened up for last night so I grabbed the reservation and called up my skinny friend who can eat a lot to be the perfect partner for properly attacking the menu. Now the downside of most soft openings is that the menu is usually limited and the service is uneven, but at SakaMai, perhaps since this was the final night of a week-long soft opening, I found that the menu had ample selections and the service was actually excellent by any standards.
When you first enter, even before you get to the hostess station there is a rather spacious area with a couple of tables and high stools which are every bit as comfortable as the seats in the main room. The decor is what you’d expect of a higher end sake lounge; think dim lighting and walls of stone/exposed brick with a modern feel. On this night, the hostess station was presided over by two uber-attractive people, I think their names were Yasu and Jess, who were dressed like classy fashionistas while greeting you with a respectful friendliness and sincerity I consider to be very Japanese. It was the first of what would be consistently excellent service across the board, right down to the guy bussing the tables. Beyond the hostess station is the main room which is basically a long single row of tables with comfortable bench seating along the wall side and chairs on the aisle side. But enough about the decor, I know you want to know about the food and bev.
We had a mild-mannered Maboroshi sake by the glass to begin the night. From there we moved on to two tasting flights of three sakes each. The first was three different daiginjo offerings from Dassai, the 23, 39, and 50. The numbers represent the percentage of the rice grain that is left after polishing before they use it to make sake. Typically the lower the number, the cleaner and more subtle the flavor. With these however, I found the 39 to be even fuller in flavor with a bigger finish than even the 50. It was my favorite of the trio. Of the major sake producers, I’ve always found Dassai to be one of the best. Whenever I open a sake menu and am confounded by the number of choices, Dassai is almost always my go-to because I enjoy everything I’ve tasted from them. But this was the first time I’ve ever been able to sample the 23, 39 and 50 all side by side. It’s a solid flight which should suit most everyone’s palates so I hope they keep it on the menu forever. Our second flight was of my favorite style of sake, “nama” or unpasteurized. These were nama-genshu, so they were higher in alcohol. I should point out that our waiter did a fine job of explaining details like that. Of that flight, two of my faves were on there- the Born and an offering from Kikusui (who those that know me well should recognize as the brand that produces the sake-in-a-can which I love so much). I love nama sakes and I hope in the future SakaMai will rotate in flights of seasonal ones so I can continue to explore them, just like I do at one of my other regular haunts, Wasan.
So what to eat with these amazing sakes? We had a wide assortment of small plates and was pleased by all of them. The skate wing chips were like a more elegant version of the spicy dried cuttlefish that I grew up loving. If you opt to drink beer instead of sake, I would say these chips should be your default choice. The trio of oysters were kumamotos and my favorite of the three was of course the one topped with creme fraiche and caviar, but the one with yuzu foam was quite nice as well. The dish of bone marrow with steak tartare gets a thumbs up too, but more so for the bone marrow than the tartare. The bone was split lengthwise, which in my opinion is the only right way to do it because of easier access to the fatty morsels of delight inside. The tartare while well-seasoned, just didn’t seem to have anything that would make you go wow, unlike most of the other things on the menu. One other dish, the pork buns, I thought were just ok too; decent fatty pork, but generally unspectacular especially in a city where you can find a lot of great baos. But what was spectacular was the charwan mushi (savory japanese egg custard). I’ve had a lot of great charwan mushi in my day, with probably my favorites being from Lan which no longer exists, and Dieci, which was opened by the Lan folks. But oftentimes the charwan mushi experience is augmented by things like truffle or mushroom slices adorning the top. That’s kind of like cheating with bacon or butter. Well at SakaMai, there’s no cheating, well not with garnishes anyway. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. What you get is a little teacup sized serving of nothing other than the custard topped with its dashi gelee. But oh what a custard! Why? Because it is permeated by the unctuous flavor of foie gras. The chef has done it with a very balanced hand such that if you didn’t read the menu, you might not even realize that’s what’s in it. You would only realize it was mysteriously satisfying and over-the-top delicious. It’s the best dish on the menu in my opinion. Visually, though, the stunner was the dish called “Egg on Egg on Egg”, featuring uni and caviar over scrambled eggs, served in an uni shell. Super decadent and it tasted every bit as amazing as it looks. I wonder if they will possibly get the larger and slightly sweeter uni from Santa Barbara for this dish in the future. If they did, I would probably have to change my rankings and give this dish the nod over the charwan mushi, but it would be close.
We rounded out the night lingering over a bottle of the Dassai 39 and ordering a couple more dishes- the kampachi sashimi and the octopus, both nice offerings, but paled in the afterglow of my charwan mushi/uni/caviar eggstacy. I will definitely return and can see this becoming one of my regular weekend destinations. SakaMai officially opens tonight and I think they’re off to a terrific start. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit and can’t wait to see what pleasures the full menu will have in store for us.