New York: Sake and Shochu at Akariba in Williamsburg
First came Zenkichi. Hidden behind a stretch of unmarked wood siding, the five year-old Japanese restaurant unfolds in tendrils of private booths and curtained corners. It's Williamsburg's most romantic room and is home to New York's finest $55 omakase; the atmosphere is intimate and the menu hosts all sorts of elegant magic. Now there's Akariba: Zenkichi's hushed, splendid bar area dedicated to oysters, sake, and the art of the shochu cocktail.
Back here, you're not on Zenkichi's patio but in its lantern-lit garden shed, one that's all dressed up for the occasion. A towering sycamore anchors the 40-seat space, growing up from the floor and branching out through the rafters. In the spring it will make great shade for the couples tucked into the banquette as they pick over fat, buttery Kumamoto oysters ($3.25 each) and listen to Billie Holiday.
Akariba's ostensible draw is its sake list, which is indeed one of the most comprehensive in the city. It's smartly curated to serve drinkers at every level of sake saavy, from the nervous—try the Dewa Sansan Junmai Ginjo ($13/$64), a bright, tangy brew reminiscent of white wine—to the adventurous. When I ask where I should start if I want to broaden my horizons, the bartender smiles and flips my menu to the "Aged Sake" section, tapping a finger on the Tenran-zan ($8.50). Served in a rocks glass over a giant, hand-carved ice sphere, the golden-brown liquid resembles scotch and smells of pepper; drink it and you'll find out what ancient fruit tastes like.
Somehow just as exciting as the sake selection, though, is the cocktail menu. It's as brief as the other is long, containing just four drinks based on shochu—a native Japanese spirit distilled from rice (not brewed, like sake) with a clean, vodka-like character. Need proof that Akariba's mixed drinks aren't afterthoughts? It's all in the Bee's Devotion ($10), a pale yellow stir of shochu, yuzu juice, wildflower honey, and yuzu peel. It looks like sunshine and fires off notes of tangerine and fresh honeysuckle. This is the drink that could get us all through to May.
Less successful is the Loyal Willow ($10), a leaden blend of shochu, pureed lychee fruit and lavender syrup. The Tokyo Azure ($8) picks up the slack, though, and showcases blue curacao—no kidding—in a non-cloying way. The highball starts with the liqueur as a base, with layers of shochu, grapefruit juice, and lychee syrup floated atop it. The overall effect is electric and somewhat tropical; it glows in the glass and goes down like fruit punch. Somewhere in the world, this drink has a karaoke bar cousin.
In addition to a handful of Zenkichi-made snacks, the bar menu offers a thicket of oysters best paired with sake—Fanny Bay ($2.25), Godzilla ($6.25), Hama Hama ($2.50 each), to name a few—but if you've opted for cocktails, there's another pairing choice you shouldn't overlook: dessert. The Frozen Black Sesame Mousse ($6.95) casts deep, dark chocolate shadows over a base of toasted sesame; the Mineoka Milk Tofu is a palate-cleansing pot de creme, topped with strawberries, white chocolate, and a mash of Adzuki red bean. Each dish offers a lesson in subtle, sweet-turned-savory complexity.
There will be plenty of people who will land at Akariba solely because they're awaiting a table next door. It's a fair move, but this sweet, secret backdoor spot deserves at least one visit when you plan to stay put.