Jon Hill and the Sake Bar Hagi
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog’s rogue adventurer, Jon Hill braves midtown in search of Sake and soy-infused delights. Read on, Japanophiles.
You could easily miss the Sake Bar Hagi on 49th Street if you weren’t looking for it.
Only a single sign announces its presence, and to make matters worse, the sign is posted several doors down from the actual entrance to the Japanese pub. Still, if you pass those two tests, a third obstacle awaits you – a steeply descending staircase that hides the front door from sidewalk view.
Such subterfuge might be necessary, though. The evening crowd packing the noisy subterranean booths and tables of Sake Bar Hagi is almost too large for the staff to handle, and wait-times for seats can exceed an hour-and-a-half. Admittedly, customers have good reasons to stick around: the food is cheap, the atmosphere is charming, and the menu seems practically airlifted from the streets of Tokyo.
That authenticity is what attracted me to the bar Friday. I had my eye on a dish not often seen listed on American Japanese restaurant menus – natto.
Common in Japan to the point of being a breakfast food, natto is essentially fermented soybeans. It’s a nutritionally well-balanced food and, like most soy products, it’s surrounded by a cloud of medical lore touting a multitude of health benefits. (Who knew I could reverse baldness and cure dysentery with a single meal?)
Unlike soy sauce and tofu, however, natto has not made the cross-cultural leap into the standard American culinary repertoire. Indeed, when the Sake Bar Hagi waiter was asked about ordering the dish, he looked at me startled and replied, “You want natto?”
The reason for natto’s estrangement from the American palate was immediately obvious when a saucer of it arrived at my table. Despite being cloaked in a fried tofu wrapper, the natto gave off a distinctive odor my dining companions best described as “like a zoo.” The strong, meaty, musky smell rivals some cheeses in its pungency and has been compared by some food writers to the aroma of toes. (That’s right – toes.)
Natto’s appearance is not much better, either, as it is lumpy, dark brown, and coated in a stringy, mucous-y goo. Those web-like strands, it turns out, are actually the remnants of the bacterial colonies used to ferment natto, though this is a fact you may wish to leave out of polite dinner chit-chat.
Surprisingly, I did not find the taste to be worth the unappetizing build-up. Although natto’s texture is rather like month-old canned peas, the flavor lacks the noxious ammonia quality you would expect based on the smell. Instead, it is highly savory and somewhat salty but, on the whole, mostly bland. For anyone who has braved Morbier and Limburger cheeses, natto feels like a remedial course in stinky foods. There is little pay-off for all of the olfactory hype. (Sake Bar Hagi fortunately serves its natto paired with grated ginger, which helps punch up the dish to a more interesting level.)
But, assuming you can ignore the smell or are perhaps suffering from dysentery, natto is still worth a bite or two. You’ll have an interesting war story to swap with future food adventurers and you won’t be too weirded out to keep sampling Sake Bar Hagi’s other culinary curiosities, including wasabi-flavored raw octopus, grilled quail eggs, and barbecued ginkgo nuts.
WHAT IT IS: Natto, a dish of fermented soybeans from Japan
WHERE IT IS: Sake Bar Hagi, 152 W. 49th Street (Midtown)
HOW MUCH IT IS: $4.50 for four pockets of tofu-wrapped natto
HOW TO GET THERE: Take the 1 train to 50th Street and walk a block east. (Be sure to show up early or be prepared to wait. Sake Bar Hagi fills up fast with traveling Japanese businessmen and exchange students, and the pub does not take reservations.)