Minneapolis’s new Zen Box Izakaya is the Japanese gastropub
Conjure up thoughts of highly evolved drinking and Europe typically comes to mind, with its elaborate wines, aperitifs, digestifs, grappas, vin santo, brandies, vodkas, wine pairings, wine dinners, wine/cheese courses, et cetera. But Japan has its own culture of complex and elaborate drinking, and it’s based not on grapes but on grains—above all, rice. Sake comes in every variety, from sparkling (like Champagne), to sweet and rich (like Sauternes), to dry and stony (like Chablis). Shochu is a stronger alcohol made from rice, and, not unlike vodka, is served ice cold or on the rocks. And, of course, there’s beer, made with rice and malted barley in batches big (Asahi) and small (Hitachino). Naturally, with all this drinking comes eating, and just as the West has bar food, gastropubs, brasseries (named after breweries, after all), and so forth, Japan has its own drinking/food spots, most famously the izakaya, effectively a Japanese brasserie. Before this fall, if you wanted to eat at an izakaya you had to spring for a plane ticket to Tokyo, or at least California. No more! Minneapolis’s first official izakaya has opened downtown by the Guthrie Theater, and if you care at all about Japanese drinking you need to drop everything and get there—immediately.
Once you arrive, you’ll be greeted by a hearty, happy shout from the whole kitchen staff—a traditional part of the izakaya experience. Now, start drinking! Start with a sake flight: two-ounce pours of three separate sakes, arranged for greatest contrast, one rustic and woody, another nutty, and the last tart. Of course, with your sake you’ll want a beer—a seriously dry Asahi draft, for instance. Imported straight from Japan, it’s the perfect foil to the most intensely flavored foods—which you’ll want to start setting around the table with abandon. Don’t miss their truly craveable version of fried chicken, the crisp, salty, indulgent kara-age. Their big bowls of ramen are perfect winter dinners, the big chunks of pork belly and soft-boiled eggs making the simple noodle-soup rib-sticking. The plain-sounding salmon teriyaki is actually a terrific dish, a fillet of fish expertly cooked such that it’s still translucently rosy on the inside and perfectly sweet-and-salty-sticky on the outside.
Everything at Zen Box Izakaya, except the ramen, is meant to be shared, so if you choose to stay late into the night, drinking your way through the menu, you can amuse yourself by trying the sashimi kimchi salad (terrifically fresh chunks of fish given a blazing chili glaze), miso-simmered pork ribs with kimchi (layers of savory), or the fermented soybean natto omelette (legendarily stinky, this is the true Japanophile’s badge of true Japanophile street cred). Circle back another night to try the shochu, the ever-changing Hitachino ale on tap, and the nightly specials, such as the buta kakuni, a decadent concoction of lacquered pork belly. Visit half a dozen times, and the next time you conjure thoughts of high-class drinking you may be surprised to find that visions of a very Tokyo-like corner of Minneapolis spring to mind
We’ve never had such good Japanese drinking in Minneapolis—come for the sake, stay for the ramen.
Ideal Meal: Chicken kara-age, a beer, a sake, a big bowl of ramen, another beer. Tip: Often serving till 1 a.m., excellent for dinner after a downtown show. Hours: Monday–Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday–Friday, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m., 5 p.m.–1 a.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m.–1 a.m. Prices: Small plates from around $6; entrées from around $10. Address: Zen Box Izakaya, 602 Washington Ave. S., Mpls., 612-332-3936, zenboxizakaya.com