Sharaku Sake Lounge and Izakaya: An Inspired Way to End a Workday.
I hadn't had a very good Monday.
My computer was threatening to lock me out of my e-mail, nobody was returning my calls and my dinner date canceled on me, sending my carefully crafted review schedule into a tailspin. Staggering under the weight of my 9-to-5 troubles, I wandered into Sharaku.
You don't have to bring white-collar worries to Sharaku, the wonderful izakaya that Yutaka Yamato this summer opened a few doors down from his eponymous uptown sushi shop, but it's rather nice if you do—especially if the notion of an authentic experience appeals.
The very first izakaya proprietors may not have had businessmen in mind when they added grilled snacks and comfortable seating to their noodle bars and liquor stores, but the connection was cemented by the late 19th century. So was the genre's popularity: In Japan, where more than half of allowable vacation days go unused, there's an izakaya on every big city block.
Izakayas are where Japanese go to loosen their ties and rub out their workaday cares with cold beer and chicken skewers; Toyo University instructor Kunio Nishimura translates the word izakaya as meaning "a sense of relief after work."
Sharaku started out as a sake bar, but Dallas drinkers kept pestering the staffers for beer and wine. "It didn't work well," Yamato told me when he announced the renovation project. A few customers are apparently equally unclear on the izakaya concept, using the low-lit shotgun space as a stopover on their way to a glitzy sushi dinner. While a hankering for chicken livers is eternally forgivable, Sharaku works better as a ritualistic end than a scene-setting beginning. In American terms, starting a Yutaka meal at Sharaku is akin to grabbing a beer at the union hall before a reservation at the Ritz.
The assumption when you enter an izakaya is that you're downcast and weary and maybe even a little sweaty from a day spent staring at spreadsheets and catching elevators to PowerPoint presentations. That's why izakayas in the traditional mode—Sharaku among them—greet patrons with a warm, scented white towel. In Japan, the most uncouth pub-goers drag the towels across their faces and slap them against their armpits. In Dallas, the protocol's a dainty hand wash.
Sharaku doesn't offer the tatami mat seating that's standard in Japan, but customers can choose between a row of tables and the marble-topped counter bar where the grilling is done. The charcoal grill, situated behind a sheet of Plexiglass, occupies the back third of the bar and is tended by a serious-looking fellow who fans errant flames with a round souvenir fan that could have been swiped from a high school production of The Mikado.
What goes on the grill are meat and vegetable skewers, which make up the better part of Sharaku's menu. Or you can have the same skewers dredged in panko bread crumbs and deep-fried. The former's called kushiyaki and the latter kushiage, but it's OK if you forget: The servers have a park ranger's knack for investing explanations with enthusiasm and can skillfully parse sakes and shabu shabu eating techniques without making their customers feel like imbeciles.
Shabu shabu, or Japanese hot pot, is the heftiest—and priciest—item Sharaku serves, excepting a lump of toro (tuna underbelly) tartare that's served in a puddle of wasabi soy. The sauce is proportioned so perfectly it threatens to infuriate sushi eaters who spend their meals reaching again for the soy sauce bottle and burrowing their chopsticks into their wasabi supply, trying to create the ideal balance in their dipping bowls. But the tartare I tried was nearly frozen solid and became slightly mealy as it melted, another reminder that an izakaya's not the right venue for a fancy raw fish dinner.
The shabu shabu arrives in a pretty copper cooker warmed to a skin-singing heat. The seaweed broth is inlaid with a cornucopia of fresh greenery: There are fennel tops, green onion and napa cabbage, as well as glass noodles, shiitake mushrooms and a sheet of seaweed that's reputed to make eaters' hair shiny. It's a DIY dish, with the meat—slender strips of pork or beef—delivered raw for in-pot cooking. I found the broth a bit bland, but the soup's served with a punchy dipping sauce of ginger and lemon.
When all the vegetables have been dispatched, a server adds white rice and an egg to the pot, creating a comforting porridge. "That's my favorite part," my server told me as she scooped me a serving.
A lone diner could make a dinner from shabu shabu, but getting full isn't the point at an izakaya: Since it's a happy-hour hangout, an izakaya typically serves little plates that won't prevent customers from enjoying dinner with their families an hour later. Many of the snacks at Sharaku are startlingly good.
Wrapping ingredients in bacon is an old cook's trick, but it's rare that whatever gets wrapped up eclipses the strip of pork surrounding it. That's the case with a giddy skewer of bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes, which make a spectacle of themselves on the grill, as embers appear to light them from within. The blistered tomatoes are terrifically tart and explosive on the tongue.
The tomatoes were the most complicated skewer I really liked: Kurobuta pork with Japanese plum was bitter where it should have been sour, and had an off-putting licorice-like taste. Chicken with spicy cod caviar, the only item I sampled that suffered from overcooking, was a tightly wound chicken roll that was weirdly reminiscent of something served at a Midwestern potluck.
Another inexplicable deviation from the classical Japanese canon is a plate of sugared pecans and a hunk of Gorgonzola cheese, which would surely pair better with cider than sake. Though it's listed among the cold dishes, eaters in the yuletide mood might consider ordering it for dessert; Sharaku, like most izakayas, doesn't serve a dessert course, since the snacks are meant as a prelude to a real dinner elsewhere.
Best of luck, then, to whomever's stuck following up Sharaku's performance: Surely it's not easy to impress taste buds still under the spell of the pub's delicate beef tongue, its uncommonly good sweet beef spare ribs or its gorgeous chicken livers, grilled to a rich, satiny finish. I'm guessing chefs tear off their toques when they hear guests have just come from feasting on Sharaku's skewers of smoky, earthy "pork classic."
Not all of Sharaku's best dishes come from the grill: There's a diverting flounder chip that's a nacho in all but name, with fish and avocado perched at the end of an oily, puffy triangle of fry. Sharaku steams some mean edamame, marinated in green tea, and puts out a lovely plate of spinach paved with a thick black sesame sauce.
I initially shied away from kushiage, thinking frying might not be compatible with some of the skewers I was most eager to try. But Sharaku's fry is clean and light and showcased to terrific effect on mushroom dishes. My companions kindly divvied up our fried shiitakes, making sure everyone got her share.
It's a fine thing to remember, after a day spent slashing budgets and emptying files: There are places—inspired, exceptional places like Sharaku—where we can focus all of our attentions on slicing mushrooms and draining beer bottles instead.
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