Where: Tamura Sake Bar, 43 Gertrude Street Fitzroy
What: The ideal local if you love sake and jazz records
Who: Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, Monemoiselle, Mushy, The Doc
Bloat score: 0 – Living the dream
Tamura Sake Bar is a small sake and jazz records izakaya on Gertrude Street, not unlike the ones I recently encountered in Japan where you couldn’t get a seat if you were in a group bigger than three.
Which brings me to my first tip: don’t go to Tamura Sake Bar if you’re in a group bigger than three – inside seating is restricted to perching on counter stools around the U-shaped timber bar (not suitable for groups of four or more unless you get a corner and you enjoy yelling) and outside seating isn’t suitable on windy days like the one we visited. It’s also largely an unmemorable experience because you’re sitting on the footpath instead of in the vinyl records-lined bar.
I love a good online booking system but Tamura Sake Bar makes it difficult – you have to email them if you’re making a booking for more than four people, perhaps the worst form of making a reservation after an online form and ringing them up. But they do reply promptly, which is something.
Why you should go is for this drink – the Ippongi chilli plum wine. I was shook when one of the most unadventurous diners I know, Mr Whatever Floats Your Bloat, chose it off the menu but he gets all my kudos for not only ordering it, but liking it. With a whiff of heat that makes it seem as though it’ll be unbearably hot, the chilli plum wine is sweet and fragrant at first with a refreshingly punchy aftertaste from the red chilli pepper. If it wasn’t too hot for Mr WFYB who hadn’t properly encountered Indian food until he met me eight years ago, it won’t be too hot for you. The choya green tea umeshu, which The Doc and I ordered, was pleasant but slightly underwhelming if compared to the Ippongi chilli plum wine, and we were both jealous of Mr WFYB who understandably guarded his drink with his life after I suggested we switch.
Mushy ordered the Yuzu de High Ball – a combination of vodka, yuzu juice, lime, mint and ginger beer – but remarked that it was too fizzy, though he did enjoy the notes of mandarin skin from the yuzu.
When it came to food, we decided to order a couple of things and share them between the five of us, fully aware that we may have to order more. First up was the agedashi tofu ($8). We ordered two serves because each serve only came with four small cubes of tofu. This agedashi tofu wasn’t what we were used to, but tasty all the same – instead of having an outer layer of gelatinous wheat flour batter, these were crumbed with panko. Crisp on the outside, piping hot on the inside, the tofu cubes came sitting in a thick, treacly pool of soy sauce.
The Japanese fried chicken ($13) was probably our favourite dish of the night. Immaculately crunchy without a hint of grease from being deep-fried at the ideal temperature, the batter on the JFC had a pleasantly smoky aftertaste and a gentle tang from the vinegar in it.
The sashimi platter ($35) was perhaps the most underwhelming of everything we ordered. It featured a combination of vinegared mackerel; scallops with shio konbu salt and roasted red capsicum; seared tuna with black sesame, avocado tartar and miso sauce; salmon with wasabi; and takowasa, a popular side dish in izakayas where octopus is diced into small pieces, boiled and mixed in with wasabi. The highlight was the seared tuna – the black sesame added a welcome nuttiness, and the dollop of miso sauce atop was a pleasant hit of sweet and sour. I’d never tasted takowasa before so had no point of comparison, but enjoyed the chewy, rather rubbery texture of the one at Tamura Sake Bar – reading reviews of it elsewhere has revealed that it is indeed how it’s supposed to taste. Apart from the takowasa, however, everything was served in minute portions and nothing apart from the two aforementioned highlights tasted particularly fresh. It didn’t seem worth $35.
The crispy chicken skin ($8) was exactly what they set out to be – crispy – but I found myself craving the crispy chicken skin infused with the fat you get on fried chicken. These would’ve been rather tasteless were it not for the sprinkling of chilli salt of them.
The last thing we ordered from the non-yakitori menu was the mixed vegetable tempura ($12), which I found myself liking a lot more than the crispy chicken skin. Liberally drizzled with kewpie mayo and sprinklings of nori, the lightly battered vegetables were the perfect drinking food.
Being a table of five, we ordered two serves each of the momo and mune skewers ($8 and $9 respectively for two skewers). The momo chicken thigh skewers came in two varieties – a shio (salt, water and rice koji) marinade and a tare (soy, brown sugar, ginger, rice wine vinegar) marinade. Each piece of meat on the skewer was interlaced with chargrilled green parts of spring onions, which was a great combination. Everyone on the table liked the tare skewers but I was quite partial to the shio one, although my favourite lassi is the salt lassi so go figure (anyone who hasn’t tasted a salt lassi before is really missing out or anyone who can’t comprehend how a salt lassi could taste good – please refer to the sentence prior).
The mune skewers, featuring chicken breast, came topped with melted cheese and three kinds of toppings. I particularly liked the mentaiko (salted cod roe topping), but overall this was rather disappointing – the chicken tasted tough and despite the three toppings, rather plain.
At this stage, we were nowhere close to full and tried to signal one of the waitstaff’s attention so we could order from the bigger plates, which included the likes of Japanese curries, ramen and a cha shu (pork belly) don. We were also waiting on our miso-grilled mackerel but between the futility of getting someone’s attention and the discomfort of sitting outside on a rapidly cooling evening, we decided to get the bill and move somewhere warmer / more attentive instead. It turned out to be the right move – we got the mackerel struck off the bill and found ourselves at Belle’s Hot Chicken down the road, where we collectively demolished a couple of medium-spicy tenders.
Tamura has an interesting menu with a few well-executed dishes, but perhaps more that fell flat – it’d be a great place to crowd around the record-lined walls and enjoy an Ippongi chilli plum wine with a JFC, but I wasn’t wowed by the rest of their food menu. Perhaps this isn’t a place for me, however – Tamura prides itself on its sake and its vinyl records, neither of which overly excites me, and is especially famous for its ‘third wave sake’, that is interesting new sake styles from microbreweries and young producers.
It was zero bloats for me because everything was fairly intolerance-friendly, but this temporary reprieve was all but extinguished as soon as I caught a whiff of Belle’s.
Tamura Sake Bar is open Monday to Saturday from 12pm to 11pm.