“So, I know this underground Sake bar nearby…wanna go?”

“Hmm…I never really got into the stuff.  The process is interesting but the taste is pretty rough,” I said.  “But an underground Sake bar, you say?”

My fearless guide was my friend, Taylor, an actor turned doctor who somehow manages to know more cool restaurants and bars than I do.  Somewhere between suturing stab wounds and pulling 90 hour weeks, he manages to slip in a Bo Ssam at Momofuku or a specialty cocktail at Angel’s Share.  Maybe he’s just been lying to me about the whole doctor thing?  (Oh, nope, that story about inserting a catheter was way too vivid to be a fib).  So bring it, Dr T.

Photo: Malcolm Brown (nycgo.com)

We made our way to 9th street in the East Village, where a wooden, non-descript archway stood over a staircase leading below the street to Decibel.  Was I being led into Jack the Rippers lair?  Was this some strange sex club from Eyes Wide Shut?  What that basement held, I really had no idea.  We opened the door and entered a new world (you gotta love that about NYC; you never know what world lies behind a closed door).

In a moment, we were transported to Tokyo or Kyoto.  The sounds of Japanese filled the air, as did the smells of noodles and pork.  A quick glance revealed a cramped space, with one row of about six seats running the length of a small bar with paper lamps and sagging ropes hanging above.  Behind the bar was a chef with a tiny kitchen…Barbie’s Noodle Station, was it?  And a wall of Sake bottles that dominated the landscape.

Photo: Malcolm Brown (nycgo.com)

We were led past the cramped bar into a second room that was about twice the size and packed to the gills with passionate imbibers.  It had a low ceiling and graffiti-covered walls made up of mostly Japanese characters, random drawings and Sake labels that had been affixed to the walls with concealed glue guns.  We saddled up to the bar where for the next hour, a drunken couple bumped into me repeatedly in a fit of passionate face-sucking.  My Sake lesson was about to begin.

There are two main kinds of Sake:  those made purely from rice, Junmai, and those with brewer’s alcohol added to extract more flavors from the mash, Honjozo.  Within the Junmai realm, there are three levels of designation (Junmai, Ginjo and Daiginjo) which refer to how much the rice is polished down to remove the proteins and oils from the grains, leaving behind the starches.  The more polished, the higher quality the Sake.

With the help of koji, the mold used to convert the starch into fermentable sugars, it is fermented and then passed through a mesh to yield a clear liquid.  For a more thorough breakdown on the process, check out this great site on sake making.

We would embark on two Junmai’s:  Harushika Junmai and the Mu DaiGinjo.

Harushika Junmai

Notes of blueberry and malt on the nose.  Almost smells like an Austrian Gruner Veltliner.  Hint of butterscotch on the palate with an oily mouthfeel and a taste of artificial banana exactly like in a bag of Runts candy.

Mu Daiginjo

Non-aromatic and hard to pull anything off the nose, except for a slight hint of apple cider vinegar.  More delicate and focused in its flavors with an almost sweat-like scent and an oxidized, Sherry flavor.  Hard to pinpoint exactly, but definite notes of Honeydew melon and a rounder mouthfeel than the Junmai.

Now, I can’t say I’m gonna run for President of the Sake of the Month Club, but I can say I’ve got new respect for the beverage.  The diversity of flavor and the rituals of serving of it are completely unique.  And if you’re ever in the East Village looking for a bar that will transport you far from the confines of Gotham, you gotta check out Decibel.

Just make sure the person you go with doesn’t go into details about feet boils and bed sores while you’re sipping your Ginjo…

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7 Responses to “Beneath 9th Street: a Sake Adventure”

  1. Ben Simons says:

    Great post! I really haven’t had very much experience with sake, so it’s interesting to learn more about it. I especially found the information about the different types of sake and the designations to be interesting. Gives me something to look for in the future.

    My experience thus far with sake has been pretty much what you describe at the beginning of the post, pretty rough. This post did make me want to give it another shot though. Cheers!

  2. Ben, thanks for dropping a line. Wish I could say go check out your local Sake bar in Lubbock, TX…but is that like saying lets get in some good fly fishing in Manhattan?
    Next time you’re in the NYC neighborhood, we’ll go on an outing. Drop me a line.

  3. genevelyn says:

    Love this bar–especially that they serve in the sake in a “go”

  4. Uwe says:

    Had my worst hangover after Decibel. All my fault, but anyway I am afraid of sake now.

  5. Uwe, you must face your fear head-on and enter the belly of the beast. Back to Decibel you must go, sir. And come armed with a belly full of water.

  6. Genevelyn, yep absolutely cool how they serve their sakes. I assume that “go” is another word for the “masu“, the wooden box that holds the glass. I like how its a sign of generosity that they pour until your glass is full and overflows into the box.

    Like the newbie I am, I had no idea whether to pour the sake from the box into my glass and drink it, or to drink straight from the box. So, instead, I just stole the box and drank it when I got home. (Note to the owners of Decibel: I am only joking. I wouldn’t steal your masu. I’m just kind of a smartass).

  7. Tim says:

    Nice Dave! I have been there, it really is like another world, well country. Don’t really remember leaving, but I must have because that was almost 3 years ago. Keep up the good work.

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