Lobster, caviar, foie gras, black truffles, sea urchin: The ingredients featured on the menu at Sakamai are what I imagine would be served at an upscale wedding banquet with champagne fountains, not in a sake bar in the Lower East Side. But Chef Takanori Akiyama is using such provisions to make intensely flavored and smartly constructed Japanese small plates.
"Eggs like sea urchin. Sea Urchin likes caviar. Caviar likes eggs. So I thought they would go well together." Chef Akiyama describes the inspiration for his Egg on Egg on Egg ($18), and he's right, it's an excellent combination of slowly scrambled, nearly curdless eggs nestled in a sea urchin shell, coated with a clear dashi glaze and topped with white sturgeon caviar and uni. The eggs are creamy and the uni custardy; salty caviar lends pop.
Equally intense are the croquettes ($14), in which lobster meat, onions, and mushrooms are cooked in lardo Iberico Bellota, bonded with lobster bechamel, breaded in panko bread crumbs, and fried golden. Surrounding the croquettes is a foam of lobster bisque and Saikyo miso. The portion of three is small for the price, but very rich.
Chef Akiyama coaxes greatness from humble chicken breast in "Southern" Fried Chicken Confit ($12). The meat is confited for several hours, battered, fried, and served in the Namban style tradition of the southern city Miyazaki: smothered in a tartar sauce of mayonnaise, cornichons, and hard boiled egg.
This rendition adds smoked paprika and red bell pepper purée, which produce a sauce with a striking orange color. I was dabbing my chopsticks into the sauce well after the chicken was gone, wondering why tartar sauce isn't served with more than just fish sticks. There isn't much crunch to the coating on the chicken, but that's not much of a detractor in this dish. Relative to the other dishes I tried, the "Southern" Fried Chicken was substantially filling, which is not at all a bad thing, considering how difficult it is to build a satisfying meal of small plates.
The menu also has a selection of "snacks" including crostini ($8) with torched uni and Parmigiano Reggiano as well as a leaf of nori wrapped around miso cream cheese and anchovy fillet ($6).
Our dishes did not arrive in rapid succession, but instead coursed out at a decidedly lounge-like pace. The time in between is best spent exploring the extensive drink menu that features dozens of sakes, Japanese beers, and cocktails from Shingo Gokan of Angel's Share.
Sakamai does not specialize in any specific traditional style of Japanese cuisine—there are no noodles or tempura or takoyaki or any of the dishes you'd expect to encounter in certain types of Japanese restaurants. Some items, like the ubiquitous pork belly buns, are more familiar, but most of the dishes are adventurous; the ingredients are familiar but the preparation less so. By the end of the meal, I found myself eager to return, both to do it all again and to make new discoveries on the menu.