Beyond its red canopy and checkerboard-tile facade in San Francisco’s funky Mission District, Nombe is what the locals call an Izakaya paradise. Izakaya means “place of sake” or, more loosely, “gathering place.” It’s a food and drink trend that is catching on not only in the Mission but all over the country.
Nombe’s logo is a clue to what the Izakaya experience is all about. “Nombe” is Japanese for “the person who loves to drink.” This historical Japanese dining tradition is focused on multiple small plates and abundant libations. “Izakaya is a gastro pub where you drink and eat at the same time,” explains Mari Takahashi, the executive chef at Nombe, “but, make no mistake, the focus is alcohol.”
As trends go, the Izakaya style of dining is more than two centuries old in Japan. While in the U.S. it’s a relatively new pop-culture, gastro-pub craze, which Takahashi calls a convenient trend arriving at an opportune time. It often mirrors the small-plates dining style of tapas, which can be light on the wallet and the stomach.
Following, and Setting, Trends
Izakaya dining took fire in the U.S., she contends, partly because of the economic downturn but also because the time was right for serving up a mixture of alcohol and small appetizers that mesh perfectly at the end of a long, enervating work day. “The Izakaya experience is convenient for people to share,” says Takahashi, “because it’s more communal.”
When it comes to alcohol, Nombe serves up primarily the beverage bellwethers of Izakaya—sake and shochu, the latter being a clear spirit distilled from various ingredients that contain natural starches such as potato, rice, wheat and barley. There are many different types of shochu, but in terms of alcohol, shochu gets much of its punch from being clear and distilled, which puts it higher on the alcohol scale than the old standard of sake. Takahashi says Japanese beer is also popular with Izakaya, the favorites being Sapporo and Asahi, priced from $5 to $6 for glasses, $15 to $18 for pitchers. Bottles of beer range from $5 to $12.
Other leading brands of drinks often served at Izakayas include Tengumai Jikomi Yamahai Junmai (one of the favorites at Nombe), sparkling sakes, Hatchiro beer and Ty Ku’s spirits and sakes.
Ashwin Balani, the manager of Izakaya Ten, which has led the movement in New York City, says it’s counter to the nature of Izakaya dining to be served by a big restaurant, so most Izakayas are small and intimate. “Izakaya started out in Japan as a place where people would meet after work to throw back some shochu and dine on small- to medium-sized plates,” consisting, he says, of unusual tapas-like items.
He agrees with Takahashi that drinking “is almost an incentive here, which is one of the reasons it appeals to our young clientele. Izakaya is the kind of experience where you drink slowly and order more as you go.” The trend is also thriving in Seattle, where Claire Lee, the dinner manager at one-location Wann Japanese Izakaya in Seattle, says her place has been open close to five successful years. Although many Izakaya establishments do not traditionally serve sushi, the sushi explosion has helped ignite the Izakaya phenomenon. “People simply know more about Japanese food than they once did,” Lee says. “Especially as people are willing to try Japanese food other than sushi.”
At Wann, Japanese Fried Chicken is a popular food, for $6, as is Chamame, for $3.50 (sweet boiled soy beans with sea salt); and a crunchy garlic rock shrimp for $6. Unlike some Izakaya destinations, Wann serves a hearty lineup of sushi and sashimi. Wann’s shochu parade offers a telling glimpse of why izakaya is popular: For $7 each, you can get shochu made from rice, buckwheat, sweet potato (the most popular at Wann), brown sugar and barley.
Kyle Hale, a server at the Seattle Izakaya, says most traditional Izakaya restaurants do not serve sushi. They do at Wann, because it acts as an inducement, in his words, for wooing Seattle diners inside.
“Izakaya is traditionally a closed kitchen, so it’s different in that sense from a sushi bar,” Hale says. “It’s where you have food and tapas after work, in a group, whereas sushi is hard to order in a group. Izakaya is better known for bar food. For instance, you go to a hamburger place for hamburgers, a fish place for fish. It’s the same way with Izakaya, which is why it differs from traditional Japanese restaurants or sushi bars.”
Although Wann serves beer and wine, shochu is easily the most popular beverage paired with izakaya, Hale says.
Small and Intimate
Part of this dining style’s appeal comes from the cozy vibe of these small Japanese takes on pubs. The format resonates in New York, Balani says, because, “These days, people feel comfortable with smaller portions. It’s a lot more fun to try more things, so why not sample from three small plates as opposed to one large entrée? That way, you get to try three things instead of one. At our place, for $50, you can try eight different things.”
At Nombe, Takahashi carries 90 types of sake, ranging from $12 for 300-ml to $465 for 720-ml., and 30 different wines (priced from $25 to $125 per bottle), most coming from California, and 15 kinds of shochu ($15 to $85 per bottle). The Nombe clientele, she says, ranges mostly between 30 and 40 years old. She calls them “highly educated, with a lot of our customers coming from the high-tech industry.”
Sake by the glass at Nombe ranges from $13 on the high end to $9 on the low end. As for food, it ranges from Edamame Hummus with Taro Chips for $6 to Tsukune (chicken meat balls) for $6 to beef tongue with Karashi mustard for $10 to mixed tempura for $12.
At Izakaya Ten in New York, drinks range from sake to shochu to cocktails, beer and wine. Izakaya Ten is also big on specials, with, for instance, $20 off all shochu bottles on Tuesday.
In the category of “tidbits for shochu and sake,” Izakaya Ten offers Edamame for $3.50, Spicy Pickled Cucumber for $5.50 and Takowasa, Raw Octopus Marinated with Wasabi for $5.50. Ume Suisho is shark cartilage marinated with plum sauce for $6 and Tako Karaage is deep fried octopus with green tea salt for $8. Those, however, are only a warmup, with Izakaya Ten offering, among its 10 most popular dishes, garlic spinach for $8, Stir-Fried Pork Belly and Kimchee for $9, Saikoro Beef Steak for $12 and Spicy Cod Shrimp for $12. There are, in addition to all of those, meat, vegetable, rice and noodle dishes, as well as sushi and sashimi (which they don’t offer at Nombe or at many other Izakaya outposts).
But in keeping with the Izakaya tradition, they like to drink, she says, and at Nombe, as at Izakaya Ten in New York, drinking a lot is not only not frowned upon, it’s encouraged.
“It’s the same as in Japan,” Takahashi says.