The land of Japan is 6,500 miles and an ocean away, but one common attribute its people share with Buffalonians is a love of drink, and I don’t mean tea. Here the corner tavern is a foundation of society.
In Japan, the izakaya, or pub, is an everyday place for drinks. Its food helps keep drinkers drinking, and keeps them from seeking sustenance elsewhere. Thus it was ever so in Buffalo taverns, with wings, fry baskets, and fried bologna sandwiches.
At Sato Brewpub, Buffalo's first purely izakaya experience, drinkers can choose from a blizzard of dishes, from an array of small two-bite items to medium-sized plates that can be passed around the table.
Grilled skewers of meat, seafood and vegetables, rice dishes, fried choices, braised vegetables and meat, stews and Japanese noodle soup, are all potent lures to keep Sato Brewpub customers at their tables. I haven't even gotten to the brew part of brewpub.
Satomi and Joshua Smith were running two restaurants when they decided on a third. Sato (739 Elmwood Ave.) offers a pan-Japanese menu, from sushi to miso caramel doughnuts for dessert in an upscale room.
Sato Ramen (3268 Main St.) concentrates on ramen, elaborate noodle soup with long-simmered broths and house-made noodles, in a student-focused setting of counters and communal seating.
Sato Brewpub's casual tone splits the difference, with servers and no communal tables. Descend the stairs into the brick-lined basement of the architectural gem Dun Building, and you find a brightly lit high-ceilinged space that gets loud when crowded.
The house-brewed beer, prepared on a system visible behind glass, is worth serious consideration. Prepared under the supervision of brewmaster Andrew Hardin, its styles run the spectrum from light (Shimbo, a rice lager innocuous as Molson but with crisp hoppy flavor) to heavy (Shudo-In, a Belgian dubbel with spice and persimmon juice, or Aggretsuko, a stout pitched as a fine quaff to prepare for death metal karaoke). Sakes, Japanese whiskey and custom cocktails also are featured.
The menu has been created with guidance from chef-owner Satomi Smith and Brewpub chef Herminio Nieves. Many plates will be familiar from other Sato locations, but there's plenty about Sato Brewpub that's different.
Okonamiyaki fries ($7) are the same crazy-good combination of house-cut fries topped with pickled ginger, Kewpie mayonnaise, scallions and bonito flakes.
Head for cabbage dishes like spicy fermented kimchi ($4) or sweet, crunchy Asian slaw ($3.50) if you're looking for tasty vegetables. Shiitake mushroom caps sautéed in butter ($8) was another umami-rich plate passed around the table until empty.
Curry pan, fried dough with curry filling ($3.50), was chewy and puzzlingly bland. Chicken katsu ($8), a panko-crumb-breaded cutlet, was properly crispy but tasted mainly of crumbs.
Mini gyu don ($7), a small helping of shaved beef simmered in gingery sweet soy and served over rice, won admirers. Chunks of ginger-marinated chicken thighs came out juicy as karaage chicken ($8). Teriyaki spare ribs ($7 for 3) were tender-hearted and crispy-edged pork popsicles, miles better than the typical versions sold elsewhere.
Those are standards, expected features. What I did not expect was to thrill to eggplant. Agenasu ($5) offers chunks of silky eggplant that's been deep-fried then marinated in sweet soy and sesame. It's a cool shocker that will give eggplant haters second thoughts, and give vegans a new reason to love the aubergine.
Sato Brewpub's menu of skewers also merits careful consideration. Chicken, beef and pork choices are joined by seafood (salmon, eel) and vegetables (shishito peppers, tomatoes). Locally raised Erba Verde chickens, heirloom breed, free-range birds, are found in skewers and ramen broth form here. There's five chicken skewer choices available ($4-$5): thigh, breast, heart, skin (out during my visit) and gizzard. Thigh, moister and more flavorful, was my favorite over livery hearts.
Satisfying skewers included eel ($9), so fatty and crispy edged it's the pork belly of the sea, brushed with sweet dark sauce. Pork belly of the land ($6), locally raised before being sliced, slathered and grilled, was the consensus winner.
Vegetables didn’t do as well. Cherry tomatoes ($3) turned mushy, and eggplant rounds ($3) were stiff and undercooked. Steak ($10) was overcooked and rubbery.
The other can't-miss here is ramen, even if just one bowl for the table to share. Chicken-based broths are notably richer and more flavorful than 95 percent of the local competition. Most impressive was the green curry ramen ($14), a Thai spin that lit up the broth with chile, basil, cilantro and other fresh herbs for a fragrant, verdant soup with a lick of heat. In its depths were properly toothsome housemade noodles; on top, sliced chicken, bean sprouts, corn, scallions, bell peppers, fried onions and lemongrass oil.
Don't make the mistake of bypassing Sato Brewpub because you've visited other Satos. More than half the menu is only available there, and once you finally get there, you might want to skewer yourself for waiting so long.
Sato Brewpub – 8 plates (out of 10)
Where: 110 Pearl St. (248-1436)
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Late-night menu until midnight Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Prices: skewers and small plates, $3.50-$10; ramen $12-$14.
Wheelchair access: no
Gluten-free options: many marked items on menu
*Read last week's restaurant review, on Jay's Artisan Pizzeria: