If you're in the mood for some interesting sake - perhaps you'd like to try some limited-edition seasonal brews from small breweries - Tokyo has a fair number of serious sake pubs to choose from. If you'd prefer something more comfortable than the typical counter seating, and you want some first-rate food to go with your sake, that narrows the field considerably, especially if you aim to stay within a reasonable budget. And if you're the kind of person who sometimes gets the urge for great sake and food at two in the morning, well then, you really should know about Toki no Ma.
Don't be scared off by the entryway, with its white granite walls and glass panels covered with cascading water - prices are closer to ordinary izakaya levels (Y3-5000 for ample food and drink) rather than the inflated dining bar levels that the decor might suggest. Once you're seated you should resist the waiter's attempt to take your drink order immediately, and take a moment to peruse the drinks list - some 40 or 50 different sakes, and three times as many shochu variations. The staff are very knowledgeable and helpful, ready to provide suggestions, advice and even detailed explanations of the brewing process if you're interested.
After you've sorted out your drinks you can turn your attention to the even bigger food menu, which includes dishes suited to sake as well as foods better paired with shochu. In the latter category is satsuma-age (Kyushu-style fish cakes), which here comes in eight different flavors, including sea urchin, shrimp, lotus root and stewed beef tendon. Our favorite is the excellent garlic satsuma-age - dotted with garlic shoots and served with roasted garlic chips, yuzu salt and lemon. Chikuzen-ni (a root-vegetable stew) is another Kyushu regional dish, and the well-crafted version here offers a pleasing bit of crunch in the lotus root and other par-boiled vegetables.
Grilled bamboo shoots - an early-spring seasonal item - are also pleasantly textural, with a nice smoky tang from the grilling process. Also seasonal is the fantastic seri ohitashi, a very delicate preparation of this mountain vegetable balanced perfectly with tiny bits of mikan - definitely well suited to even the subtlest of sake flavors. Other sections of the menu offer multiple variations on grilled chicken and game birds, horsemeat, sashimi and steamed dishes like foie gras chawan-mushi.
The restaurant is made up of several different spaces - a sushi counter at one end, private rooms with hori-kotatsu seating, and a nice central dining space with table areas separated by frosted-glass divider panels for a modicum of privacy. The presentation of the food is well-tuned to the dining-bar decor - the sake, for example, is served in a glass flask nestled in a bed of crushed ice inside a transparent plexiglass box, a perfect complement to the restaurant's white-on-white color scheme.
(Note that the menu is in Japanese only, but set meals are available if you want to simplify the ordering process.)
by Bjorn Katz