This Hidden Bar Wants To Bring Cool Sake Culture to Manila
On a night out in a Ginza izakaya about four years ago, a friend called the waiter over and ordered a cup of hirezake. When it arrived, she let it sit on the table for a few minutes before lifting the lid. I peered in and did a double take. Was that grilled meat inside?
“It is fish, actually,” she said. “It’s blowfish. You know, the one with poison?”
Hirezake is one of rice wine’s weirder permutations: a toasty fugu fin steeped in a cup of steaming hot sake. There is, thankfully, no poison in that part of the blowfish’s anatomy, but sipping at the hot drink—the charred, grilled taste of seafood fused into its mellow heat—proved too much for me. Plain old sake is unfamiliar enough as it is. I demurred, shook my head politely, and pushed the cup over for my friend to finish.
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So when co-founders Tadeo Chua and Therese Larroza tell me about the sake in their hip, hard-to-find izakaya Hamaru—hidden behind a food park along Visayas Avenue—my mind immediately flashes back to charred blowfish fin. But Chua does his best to ease me into it. Even as they roll out a selection that fills up one whole menu page, they know that sake is still a hard sell in the Philippines.
On the bar Chua lays out shots on a wooden block—their sake tanka. In Japanese literature, a tanka is a five-line poem; in Hamaru, it’s a sampler of five different rice wines. He holds one glass up. “This is Gekkeikan Nigori. Yung sweetness nito is very fruity. Para siyang peach.” The sweetness, he explains, comes from the unfermented rice solids that give nigori sake its characteristic creamy color, “nigori” being the Japanese word for “cloudy”. He points to another glass. “This, the Hakushika Ginjo Namachozo, it’s very clean. It’s not as complex. Saktong balance lang siya of everything.”
Tanka - 5 Sake Tasting Flight
Sake not your thing? They also offer Japanese whiskey
Larroza, meanwhile, urges me to try the Hakushika Junmai Daiginjo, which she describes as “very fruity, pero very crisp rin.” Junmai daiginjo is “pure” rice wine; there’s no distilled alcohol added to the rice, which is finely milled to an inch of its life before being fermented. This particular label—produced in a brewery house that’s more than 350 years old—is among her favorites. (For a friendly explainer of how sake is made, check out this helpful Esquire guide.)
Chua and Larroza have been sake aficionados for some time, and wanted to offer a selection of different flavor profiles for their bar. No matter which one you choose, though, “sake is very friendly sa palate,” as Tadeo explains. “It pairs very well with Japanese food...or any kind of food, really.”
In fact, its crispness makes it the perfect partner for the food inspired by their consulting chef, Niño Laus, who’s never met two ingredients, or ten, he couldn’t matchmake onto a plate. “It’s all about the flavors. It’s all about the tongue,” explains sous chef Joma Sanchez of their process. Hamaru’s repertoire, developed by Laus and head chef Cris Villasor, serves up flavorful, complex twists on bar chow. Their take on baked oysters, the Oyster Motoyaki, swaps out cheese for gentler cauliflower puree; their Black Sakura is sinful chicharon bulaklak marinated in squid ink and plated on an uni-oyster foam because of course it is.
The food is great—I thought that a Tofu Pocket would be the last thing you’d order on a drunken night out, but Hamaru has graciously proven me wrong—but, as always, the talk turns back to sake. By then I’d already sipped at two of their specialty whisky highballs, but then Chua brings out a narrow-necked glass of beer with a shot of sake perched precariously on chopsticks above it.
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“This is our Sake Bomb,” he says. “It’s Sapporo draft beer in the glass and karakuchi sake on top. We shout ‘Bomb!’, you hit the table with your fists, the sake drops into the beer, tapos you drink it straight.” Game?
It’s tempting. A girl at the next table, drinking by herself, downs one to great applause. But I’m already feeling my shots, and I brought my car. So I demur, shake my head politely, and point at the bright neon sign hanging on top of the bar: “Drink Sake. Stay Soba.” It’s a damn fine motto.
Hamaru is at Food Hive, 82 Visayas Avenue, Quezon City.