Being a well-known chef, for better or worse, means great expectations for new ventures. So when the Japanese chef Shin Koike, of Aizomê fame, launched Sakagura A1, his Itaim sake-den-meets-sushi-bar, in November 2012, living up to the hype was always going to be a tall order.
Koike started out in São Paulo in 2003 with A1, a much missed small izakaya (sake tavern) in an Avenida Paulista shopping mall, later moving on to open the higher-end Aizomê, which still holds its own among the city’s best Japanese restaurants.
The chef’s new venture, Sakagura A1, is a luxurious setting, with patterned dark wood partitions, brown silk sofas and an intimate, low-lit sushi bar downstairs. The staff, in dinky berets and waistcoats, are all smiles and charm.
To drink, a sake menu designed to suit a range of budgets is helpfully organised from premium daiginjo (R$230-$350 per bottle) down to the more workaday futsu-shu (R$11 per measure) varieties. The wasabi martini – tangy, with just enough punch to raise an eyebrow – is perfect. So far, so good. Until the food arrives.
Featuring ‘japas’ (Japanese tapas), cold and hot starters, hearty mains and a back page dedicated to noodles – ramen, soba and udon – the menu takes an East-meets-West approach, blending Brazilian and Japanese ingredients. The ‘kit Sakagura’ – a daily-changing rotation of five bite-sized nibbles – is an excellent way in. Ours included a tapioca-coated chunk of tuna. But from there on in, things got a little less effortless. Some of the dishes were woefully lacking in explanation, others simply not available (the aguedashi tofu in broth, on our visit at least), and a few were just plain ‘misses’.
A grilled salmon main was overpowered by its passionfruit sauce, and the kakiague udon (mixed vegetable tempura with udon) void of flavour – its thick noodles swimming in a dashi that lacked the requisite deep, comforting savouriness, while the tempura vegetables were a soggy mess within minutes. Not to mention the lone shrimp lurking at the bottom. I love seafood, and I love surprises, but not in the same bowl.
We also tried the tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) – tender and crunchy though a little on the fatty side. Perhaps the sushi would be a safer bet. On the plus side, the portions are generous and the bill refreshingly low for this part of town.