To any college kid who associates sake with cheap, all-you-can drink/eat dives from high school or “sake, sake, sake bomb!” you are missing out. Welcome to the adult world, where sake is as sophisticated as an nice glass of wine, and the ritual of drinking rice wine is sacred.
In the East Village, where speakeasy’s are found behind every phone booth or darkened door, it’s no surprise that a similar exterior would be home to Decibel, an underground Japanese sake bar. First opened in 1993, Sake Bar Decibel broke ground as New York’s original Japanese sake bar. Their goal was to give New Yorkers a glimpse into the sake culture of Japan, if you can find the hidden spot. The restaurant is marked by a little wooden sign, as well as a glowing “On Air” sign above a dingy flight of stairs.
Inside, you enter to what looks like a little sushi bar, which seems almost abandoned. But you’re not there quite yet. There’s a little hemp rope blocking an entrance way. A trendy, young Japanese man gestures for your ID, then directing you under the rope and into the back room, and the whole point of your trip.
The main room is dimly lit, with candles on each table. The walls are covered with graffiti, mainly signatures of patrons leaving their mark for years to come. The restaurant adds its own classy flare to the decorated walls with shelves of gigantic bottles of sake and traditional Japanese figurines and artwork.
More than ninety rice wines fill the menu at Decibel, divided into six different categories to help make selection slightly easier. The wait staff knows their sake, and can easily assist with helping you find the right variation. Most of the sakes are reasonably priced and served either warmed or chilled to absolute perfection. My weakness lies with cold sake (I unfortunately associate hot sake with days of dropping the liquid into luke warm Sapporo and can hardly drink the stuff now). I asked for a glass of sake for myself, requesting something medium bodied and slightly fruity. My friend, Dan, had never had real sake before, with associations dating back to drunken sake bombs. We explained to the waitress that he needed a glass of something that would help convert him from his sake hating ways. She smiled and headed to back to grab our orders.
The waitress came back shortly there after, with two little boxes with a glass in each and two different large, colorful bottles of sake. She carefully poured the sake into the glass, filling it to the brim and allowing for the clear liquid to spill over into the box. She placed the boxes in front of each of us, giving a slight bow before walking away.
The sake is phenomenal, light, sweet and refreshing. They keep their sakes chilled to an ideal temperature, making me able to drink the medium-sized glass of sake almost like water. The box prevents the sake from spilling onto the table. When your cup begins to get a little less full, you can pour the contents of the box into your cup to continue enjoying the beverage. I don’t know why more places haven’t thought about this method before.
Our stomachs began to grumble and I quickly ordered my favorite Japanese comfort food dish, Okonomiyaki. If you still have never tried this delightful Japanese pancake, you are seriously missing out on some great eats.
The complexity and unique flavor of Okonomiyaki (pronounced, Oka-No-Me-Ah-Key) is hard to describe. The outside is crisp, with a slight crunch, but the inside is soft, warm and sweet. The batter from the pancake is generally make with Nagaimo (a type of yam), cabbage, and flour, along with the additions of shrimp, scallions and squid. The condiments on top add crucial elements of flavor to the pancake. The self-named, okonomiyaki sauce has a sweet, sticky flavor, similar to that of a Worcestershire sauce. In addition, a Japanese mayonnaise, adds another element of creamy flavor to the dish.
Perhaps the funkiest part of Okonomiyaki is the use of Katsuobushi, otherwise known as Bonito Flakes. These pieces of petrified fish wiggle around the top of the dish, looking as if they are alive. They ‘dance’ on top of the pancake, until devoured, giving a wonderfully intense, yet subtle fishy flavor to the dish.
Dan devoured the dish, a sign of total approval. I even found myself recommending my beloved Japanese pancake to the people sitting at the table next to us. Okonomyaki should definitely be ordered the second you sit down here, since this is the house speciality pancake.
So the next time you’re looking for a fun, adventurous, total change of pace kind of a night, check out Sake Bar Decibel, if you can find it. It’s like a mini-trip to Japan without leaving the East Village. I promise you’ll be surely impressed by the Japanese version of a speak-easy.
Sake Bar Decibel – 240 East 9th Street – New York, NY
Sake Bar Decibel
Location: East Village, NY
Perfect For: Authentic Dining, Late Night, Impressing Foodies, Cheap Eats
Reservations: Not Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Okonomiyaki