WALKING along East Ninth Street, one senses rather than sees Sakaya’s storefront, its presence indicated by a discreet sign and, in the window, a sugidama, a sphere of bundled cedar branches that was traditionally hung from the roof of sake breweries. Inside the understated shop, devoted to the discovery and exploration of good sake, pale cedar paneling provides a soothing aroma that sharpens the curiosity.
Rick Smith, who owns the shop with his wife, Hiroko Furukawa, once knew as little about sake as most Americans. He cared deeply about food and wine: he was associate publisher of Food & Wine magazine for nine years. But he believed sake was generally harsh stuff, served warm to smooth the rough edges.
That was until what he calls “the proverbial aha moment,” a dinner at Jewel Bako, the exquisite sushi restaurant in the East Village, where he first experienced the beauty of good sake in its natural milieu.
For Mr. Smith, it was the beginning of an obsession. He drank more sake, he took courses in Japan and he discovered a shop, True Sake, dedicated exclusively to sake. Unfortunately, it was in San Francisco. New York had wonderful Japanese restaurants with good sake selections. It had bars that specialized in sake, like Sakagura and Decibel. Ambassador Wines and Spirits on the East Side had, and still has, an excellent selection. But no store specialized in sake only.