Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Koju, Kanda (かんだ光寿 )

We all have our biases, and in this case the thing that kept me from going to Koju much sooner was the web site. It's spectacularly uninformative, and even confusing - the main picture shows a man in a firesuit, leaning against the front of a racecar. It does not contain the shop's address. Nor phone number. Nor opening hours. (It does have a long, text-only list of sake brewers.) But you would do well to make a reservation, because it was full on Tuesday night, and I'm sure it's full every other night too (we called the Shinbashi branch one time on a Saturday night; it was full). Well, odd things can happen, and in this case it was my boss who suggested that a group of us from the office go and check it out. In the interests of my memory when I go back to read this again, the other 3 were You, Long, and my boss Bird. Our foursome teed off at 8, but with this being a work event you'll find a distinct lack of photographic evidence below. Bear with me as I write far more than anyone could ever bear to read.

Looks are really deceiving here. The exterior is a bit modern-shabby, with a small overhead sign that makes it look...well, unappealing to me. I've walked by before, and it didn't heighten my desire to enter. But as soon as the door opened, it was a different world. The whole inside is old, rough wood - more in a 'sloppy Showa construction' way than a 'Nagano country house' way, with other old furnishings, sake stickers on overhead panels, and lots and lots of empty bottles. You know the way French or Italian restaurants keep trophy bottles of expensive wines? These guys (or really This Guy, since I'm sure it's the masterplan of the guy who also loves car racing) keep their fancy empties too, and line up identical ones in a way that's almost referrential of modern art - put enough of a normal thing together and it becomes interesting. They have relationships with some brewers I never heard of - Nechi Otokoyama 根知男山 http://www.nechiotokoyama.jp/ (maybe not related to the more famous Hokkaido brewer), Zaku 作 http://www.zaku.co.jp/ (who made the bottle with the label of the owner in his firesuit that features on the web site), lots more.

What do you want to hear about first, food or drinks? I know my reviews are formulaic on this score. Oh well. Incidentally, I maintain that I'm more of a food guy than a drinks guy, and another of my advance objections to this place is that it's a drinks 'n' snacks place - no satisfying food plates. I can't actually opine on that, because as part of my strategy to limit consumption, I didn't look at the food menu! The snacks were quite satisfying in their own way, and we had a few larger plates that were decent.

Well, as long as I'm into it, let me go through what I can remember from the food. First point, main point - fish guts. Everyone knows heavily salted fish guts are something that goes great with sake (you knew this, right?), and there were so many forms of fish guts here it wasn't funny. Tasty though, honestly speaking. I wonder what the seating charge is, because as soon as you sit they bring you the toshi, and it is easily the most spectacular...ly varied toshi plate you're ever going to get in a bar. I think there were 6 different things on it, all in convenient snack-size quantities and all of a distinct eat-while-drinking flavor. I remember raw shirasu (tiny whole silver fish in fish stock with onions, delicious), squid pickled in squid guts (you call it shiokala, but I don't like to disguise what it is; this was the best version I can remember. Almost tasted like sauce Americaine.), a small slab of grilled fish (sawara, or swordfish, or something with a prominent slice of blood meat), a whole bowl of water shield, a trio of small whole fish fried and dipped in sweetened vinegar...you see all the fish guts there? But they were all good fish guts. Honest. You could get through several glasses of sake on this plate alone.

Moving on to stuff we ordered, I made it a point to get smoked pickles; can't get by without them, and the gakko here were a pretty refined version with less smoke and crunch than some. Good stuff. They go well with cream cheese, which Koju had several varieties of; the one preserved in sake lees was awesome - it had this sweet vanilla flavor that made me want to go right home and make it. Long, who is a big guy and a bigger eater, ordered this tantan tofu, a flat bowl of tofu topped with a mapo-tantan-ish sauce; this was one of the less-good things, but I also didn't relish the idea of distracting from the expensive sake with spicy food (this was well before the end of the meal, when I found out the company was paying for us). He also got the grilled chicken, which was a whole breat of Daizen chicken, from Okayama where You is from; it's got a lot of flavor and texture and is always good. THE standout item though, and I want you to pay attention to this even though it's buried in the middle of paragraph 5, was the raw vegetables. The tomatoes were very nice, but the raw white corn was excellent (and made me wish I was in New Jersey in the summer - I've thought for years that you shouldn't boil corn more than a minute or two, and now I've confirmed what I suspected, which it that zero minutes is an acceptable amount too. Sweet, delicious. Just not hot.), and the eggplant, the raw eggplant, was so good that I later ordered another whole one. Like raw turnips, I now think this is the best way to eat them; sprinkle on a little salt, get 'er done. On the other hand, they were water eggplant, which is usually just served as a light pickle, so it's not that revolutionary to eat them almost-raw. The other items that I want to mention were the potatoes - one was a hot dish of potatoes with leeks and...squid gut sauce. The other was a simple potato salad, enlivened to the point of unbelievability by the addition of...bonito guts. Honestly, what are these people thinking? Fish guts in the potato salad? Weird thing is, it tasted incredible!

And I suppose you want to hear about the ridiculous, amazing sake list too? It's not outlandishly large; they just focus on having the good stuff, probably...50 varieties of it. A nice thing is that you can get it in 120ml wine glasses or 80ml (60ml?) 'shots', which are actually more like liqueur glasses. I'd get the smaller size - the optics of the glass make it look like a better value! Speaking of value, there aren't a lot of options below Y800 per glass, and there are plenty of options between Y1k and Y1.6k. That's healthy. On the other hand, the freshness seemed good even though they didn't have fancy wrapping/un-wrapping, tableside pours, and other trappings we sometimes expect. Plus much of it was 'stuff you can't get elsewhere', 'limited production', 'free run', 'large bottle' and the like ('large bottle', incidentally, was something none of us knew before last night. It means the sake is bottled in a carboy 10 times the size of a regular isshobin (18 liters).). For me the standout was actually the extremely fruity Minami that Bird had a glass of; my own choices concentrated on stuff I hadn't heard of before (like the Nechi Otokoyama), and of course some Juyondai (should have asked what it was, because it wasn't my favorite of their production). Another nice element is that they often have multiple choices from the same brewer, and they have a lot more daiginjo than most places. CF the pricing...

That, I think, is more than enough writing for a little old sake bar. It's a little hard for me to recommend this to you, because there's a very limited slice of the English-speaking population whom this will appeal to. You have to like the more-snack-than-meal aspect of the the food, but more importantly you have to be willing to pay a premium for esoteric sake. But recommend it I shall, and I hope if you choose to go you're well-prepared and don't suffer any shocks that could impair your enjoyment.

It's electric!


  1. Early this week we bought some very excellent Jersey corn, the kind you get in the spring, and they said there will be more next week. Hopefully there will still be some available when you get here so you can refresh your corn memory.


  2. "Yum, yum, squid and quts. My favorite (direct quote from Auntie N). Drink 'n snack sounds good to me.