NOTE: Itigo Sake House closed in May 2012
A Japanese fever is slowly but surely taking hold in São Paulo. And it’s not the sushimania of the last few decades. Izakayas – a word which loosely translates as ‘to sit in a sake bar’ – are springing up across town, offering a very Japanese take on gastropubs, and a welcome antidote to those who think sushi is synonymous with Japanese cuisine.
‘It’s the Japanese happy hour,’ says Ana Toshimi Kanamura, one half of the husband-and-wife team that runs one of the city’s newest izakayas, Itigo Sake House. ‘People in Japan go to izakayas to relax, drink and graze on food after work,’ Kanamura explains.
Izakayas have, in fact, been a small but reasonably well-kept secret in Liberdade (São Paulo’s Japanese heartland) for years. Kanamura and her husband Evandro Aguiar spent years perched at the counters of family-run Liberdade spots like Kabura and Kidoairaku before they set up on their own in the more upmarket neighbourhood of Jardins. With Itigo’s sleek glass counter and immaculately presented dishes, the couple hopes to bring the izakaya concept to a wider São Paulo clientele.
Aguiar’s domain is behind the bar, and he jumps at the chance to take listeners through a quick history of sake, explaining how the polishing of the grains of rice determines the quality of the liquor. Shochu (a spirit popular in Japan, distilled from barley, sweet potato or rice) is Aguiar’s other passion and he claims to have the most extensive range in Brazil. Soak up the alcohol with a bite to eat – the yaki onigiri (rice balls, (R$16.50) are a good place to start, or a plate of the meltingly-soft, sweet charred aubergine yaki nassu (R$10).
Another relative newcomer to the izakaya scene is Izakaya Issa, which has drummed up more media attention than its unassuming izakaya neighbours have managed in thirty years. Hanging red flags and a solitary lantern signal the small establishment’s front door. The first thing that greets customers inside is the long bar – a feature of all izakayas – and small piles of shoes at the end of a handful of hotly-disputed booths, where loose-limbed groups can clamber in and sit low.
Run by the charismatic Margarida Haraguchi and her all-female team, Izakaya Issa has quickly earned a reputation for its excellent traditional cuisine. If you can find a seat (you’d be wise to come early, or book), the best way to start is with the otochi – a sequence of four small dishes that vary each day (R$20) and takoyaki (Japanese dumplings, R$28), while you browse the sake menu. The sakes, all imported, are far from cheap (R$150-$500 per bottle; R$20-$38 per glass), but that doesn’t stop the place packing out with a lively mix of Japanese and Brazilian clientele, some of whose names are scribbled on bottles of sake or shochu stored behind the bar.
One block up from Izakaya Issa, Dona Margarida’s husband, Masanobu Haraguchi, the former star sushiman at Miyabi restaurant, has just opened his own izakaya, Ban (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga 20, Liberdade, 3341 7749). The bright lights, tiled floor and high white walls are a stark – almost clinical – contrast to the wooden, cosy setting of Isakaya Issa. And unlike most izakayas, Ban is open for lunch too, and serves sushi and sashimi. For izakaya eating, stick to the ‘sake na sakana’ (dishes to eat with sake) – our favourite was the aguedashi dofu (R$20) – fried tofu and sweet chunks of aubergine in a subtle dashi stock, topped with grated ginger and spring onions.
|Onion slices at Kabura|
For a more old-fashioned izakaya experience, head round the corner to Kabura where late mid-week opening hours and a young clientele lend an informal bar vibe. Brothers Hitoshi and Satoshi have manned the grill here for almost 30 years, cooking simple delights like a whole grilled anchovy (approximately R$70, varies by weight).
But while Kabura goes on unchanged, year after year, some of the big names of São Paulo’s top-end sushi scene are weighing in on the action. Reports of an exclusive izakaya in the JK Iguatemi shopping centre, by the Kinoshita chef Tsuyoshi Murakami, and a new Itaim izakaya by Shin Koike, of Aizomê fame, look set to bring izakayas firmly into the 21st century – and out of Liberdade.
Ban is at Rua Thomaz Gonzaga 20, Liberdade, 3341 7749.
Itigo Sake House is at Alameda Lorena 871, Jardim Paulista, 3068 7875, itigo.com.br (CLOSED).
Izakaya Issa is at Rua Barão de Iguape 89, Liberdade, 3208 8819, izakaya-issa.com.
Kabura is at Rua Galvão Bueno 346, Liberdade, 3277 2918.
Kidoairaku is at Rua São Joaquim 394, Liberdade, 3207 8569.