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March 13th,
written by Arthur

The Melodramatic Prologue

It was December 2010.  In the biting chill of winter.  The piercing wind whipped through the man-made canyons that are the streets of Manhattan. Two adventures set out on a culinary quest.  Months before Meg had eaten at a Japanese bar that she thought I would love.  It reminded her of Village Yokocho.  She wasn’t exactly sure where it was.  Between 6 and 7 Ave.  On 51st Street.  Maybe 50th.  Definitely in the 50s.  What was it called though…?  She wasn’t sure, but there was a boring bar a couple doors down and there were stairs in the restaurant  that bring you down to the seating area.   Against my better judgment, I became the second adventurer on this foolhardy adventure.

We started on our way, walked the five avenues over and four blocks down, the winter air challenging us to turn back at every step.  Once we got to 50th street, we walked its length west from 6th Ave to 7th Ave.  The mysterious restaurant did not reveal herself.  Meg assured me that it must be on the next block.  So we walked 51st going West from 7th Ave to 6th Ave .  The mysterious restaurant still did not reveal herself.  “I’m sure it’s right near here, it must just be the next block up.”  52nd Street from 6th Ave back to 7th Ave.  “OK, really, it’s right near here, I’ll know it when I see it.”  53rd Street from 7th Ave to…..  We made, snaking between 6th and 7th Avenues, it all the way up to 59th Street, where, frozen and defeated, we gave in and turned back to eat at Joe’s Shanghai midtown location on 56th.

But like all good tales, this one comes with a happy ending.  A few weeks ago, Meg tracked down the location of this mystery restaurant.  It’s on 49th, just on block South from where we started our Northward hunt!  But the meal we finally enjoyed this weekend made the earlier chilly trek worth the pain.


The Place

Finding ourselves in Times Square, we stopped by the mystery restaurant, which we learned is actually an izakaya, or Japanese pub, called Sake Bar Hagi.  We had to pass an hour waiting for a table, so we passed the time at the bar of Pasta Lovers, a few doors down. It was early evening, around 6:30, which made us a little surprised to find a huge crowd at Saki Bar Hagi.  But, given the Midtown location, Hagi seems to draw a large after-work crowd.  (As an aside, please ignore all of the great things I say about this place, avoid it like the plague, so that next time I go there it won’t be so crowded!)

The sign above the outside door simply reads: Sake Bar.  Once past the first door, there’s a narrow staircase leading down to  another door to the bar and seating area.  I felt like I’d stepped out of New York and into an Osakan sports bar.  The actual bar is medium-sized, with most of the warmly lit room dedicated to long wooden tables, with smaller tables on the outskirts.  From pretty much wherever you sit you have a view of a one of the many flatscreen TVs on the wall and get a view of one of the many signs with the daily specials.


The Eats

The menu and drink list were a little overwhelming at first.  Laminated page upon page of bright text and pictures of unending deliciousness.  In the end, with the help of an unfiltered sake, we narrowed our choices to a seaweed salad, wasabi octopus with cream cheese (from the special menu), the octopus balls, a beef skewer, wasabi pork dumplings, rice and salmon, and the spaghetti with flying fish roe.


Seaweed Salad

I’m not really sure what they did to this seaweed salad, but it was hands-down the best I’ve ever had and it was Meg’s favorite dish of the night.  It was visually beautiful, with the dark black seaweed punctuated by little bits of green and red.  The flavor was sly and ephemeral with little bits of salt, light acid, bright onion?, garlic?, and lemon?  And the crunchy texture was great.  If I had it to try again I might still have to much fun eating it to really focus on all of the flavors going on.


Wasabi Octopus with Cream Cheese

What is wasabi octopus with cream cheese?  I had no idea my self when I order it off the chalk-written specials menu next to our table.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was definitely surprised when it got to the table.  There were maybe a half-dozen crackers on the plate with a small pile of what could pass for a dip in the Midwest sprinkled with something green (minced green onion I think).   After putting some of the “dip” on a cracker and biting in, I found the octopus hiding in 1/2 inch to 1/4 inch pieces in the mixture.  It was one of the more subtle uses of wasabi I’ve tasted–it was there adding flavor, but the burn was completely mellowed by the cream cheese.  My mouth got a barrage of flavors with each bite.   The cream cheese seemed to be mixed with something–it was much less thick than I expected it to be.  Honestly, given the texture, I’m not sure how it held it held together in a little mound rather then spreading all over the plate.  The flavors were bright and the cream cheese made the dish comforting as any good bar (izakaya) food should be.


Octopus Balls

On the menu, there were two options for the octopus balls: pan fried and deep fried.  I really wanted to try the octopus balls – in part to compare them to the ones I know and love and Village Yokocho, and since Village Yokocho pan fries, I had to go that route.  The first difference between the balls at Hagi is they are fewer but larger.  On biting in, the difference continued.  The Hagi balls are  bready on the inside, a very moist bread, but still a bread texture.  In contrast, Village Yokocho’s balls are slightly doughy.  The size of the bits of octopus encased in the little bread balls was also different.  At Hagi you could feel the chunks of octopus; at maybe an inch to an inch and a half you had to give a couple good chews before swallowing.  At Village Yokocho, the octopus comes more as bits than chunks and require no more chewing then doughy balls they’re in.

My verdict on the winner for octopus balls is still out.  But never fear.  I’ll take one for the team and eat as many as it takes until this problem is resolved.


Beef Skewer

Yeah, we ordered just one.  Something told us we might have enough food coming our way to fill us up.

The skewer was simple and great.  It was fatty (maybe a little grisly) cut of beef with a sauce coating of some kind.  With each bite the delicious fatty bits melted in my mouth.



Wasabi Pork Dumplings

These bad boys packed a tasty wasabi fueled punch.  Again, I was interested to see how Hagi stacked up on a known favorite from Village Yokocho.  As with the octopus balls, size of the protein was bigger.  Hagi’s pork had a very coarse grind, where as at Village Yokocho the grind is finer.  Again, the stack-up here is tough call.  The only thing I can think to do is to take a day and head to each with Fayaz and implement a proper comparison.  (Too spicy for Meg’s taste.)


Rice Ball

The rice ball really wasn’t much of a ball at all, but more of a rice triangle with a small dent in the middle filled with Salmon.  This dish was probably my least favorite  of everything ordered.  All-in-all it was just fairly bland.  A rice triangle, with a crispy outside, chewy inside, and some salmon flavor.  Still, if I’m throwing back the beers at Hagi while watching a game on the flat screen, I could see where this simple, filling rice dish might have it’s place.



Spaghetti with Flying Fish Roe

Meg had sampled this dish at the encouragement of a friend the first time she came to Hagi and was determined to try it again.  It takes a lot for a dish to make me think to myself, “WTF is going on here?!” and this plate of spaghetti definitely made me do that in a very good way.  I liked, but didn’t love this dish.  Still it was exciting to try something so different.  The base of the sauce on the spaghetti seemed to be mayonnaise or cream based–maybe a little to much mayo for my taste.   The fish roe and a good level of saltiness and some interesting texture.  There were some other flavors at play but, like so much of what I tried,  I had trouble picking them out of the shuffle.


The Epilogue

The food arrived at Hagi in a nice ordered progression with never more then two dishes on the table and never more than a few minutes with nothing on the table.   In contrast, at Village Yokocho the food either seems to arrive all at once or in random clumps.  But Hagi hasn’t replaced Village Yokocho as my go to izakaya. For once thing, it’s a bit more expensive, though only maybe by $1-$2 a dish.  For another, Village Yokocho will just always have a special little place in my heart (and a large piece of neighboring real estate in my stomach).  Still, I can’t wait to get back to Hagi and tear through some new menu items!

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1 Comment

  1. […] thought about giving the number eight spot to Sake Bar Hagi.  But, while the post describing this amazingly fun dining spot appeared 2011, my actual first […]

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