It's only its tiny size that keeps Tsubaki from being a drinks-first izakaya, because if people used this place even remotely like a bar, the economics of the enterprise would fail spectacularly. The drinks, however, are what make Tsubaki so exciting, thanks to sommelier Courtney Kaplan, who co-owns the restaurant with chef Charles Namba. Kaplan's clear, conversational tasting notes and her delight in talking to customers about what's on the list offer an easy way to dive into your own personal sake education. The seasonal section is especially fun, showcasing special sakes that are particular to the time of year. Namba is Japanese-American but has spent the majority of his career cooking mostly in high-end French kitchens. His menu at Tsubaki brings in elements from his European-style training — there's a foie gras terrine that's marinated in sake but is classically, deliciously French in every other way — but mainly, this is a menu inspired more by Namba's heritage than by his fine-dining career. Much of the food is a simple celebration of the ingredients at hand. Hiramasa sashimi is cut into fat slabs of silky fish and presented naked, with a touch of wasabi on the side. Chicken meatballs seem as if they've been created to distill the idea of chickeny-ness, their juicy poultry essence ramped up by the addition of a runny egg yolk to use as a rich dipping sauce. There's a lot of love in this little box of a restaurant, a lot of knowledge, a lot of generosity. It may not channel the drinks-first function exactly, but Tsubaki does channel the spirit of a Japanese izakaya beautifully.
Credit: Anne Fishbein