The buzz: Setting themselves slightly apart from the hordes of Japanese restaurants and izakayas in town, Sha Raku is more along the lines of Iza on Thong Lor—a casual, hip sake bar. The first overseas flagship of a Japanese chain, Sutten-Ten, Sha Raku manages to maintain a lot of standalone integrity, thanks to its location—a lovely house and yard on Sukhumvit 23—and little touches like the kabuki art and the outdoor seating option. The décor: There are outdoor and indoor areas. One of the indoor wings is quite contemporary, with black and red chairs, while another wing is more traditional, semi-separated with partitions and awash in Japanese fabrics and wooden decorations. The centerpiece is a giant reproduction of an 18th century woodblock print by Toshusai Sharaku (hence the restaurant’s name). The food: The food here goes great with sake: dishes like roasted raw scallop with fish eggs in mentai sauce and diced beef steak in wasabi sauce. There’s also an emphasis on fresh, imported ingredients. For example, in their rainbow roll, (kingfish, salmon and avocado), the salmon is from Norway while the beef steaks are from Australia. The dragon roll (with eel) uses eel from southwestern Japan. More traditional options like yakitori (grilled chicken) with rice are also available. The drinks: A long list of sake from Japan, ranging from Hiya-nam-shu (B460/bottle) to Sho-chiku-bai (nigori, B590/bottle). You can also upgrade to sho-chu like Takeyama Gensui, which is made from rice and potato (B240/glass, B1,550/bottle). Or try the elegant Nama gold, which has bits of gold leaf floating in it (B330). The crowd: Nearby office workers by day and a mix of neighborhood residents by night. Monruedee Jansuttipan
The charming house and garden location of Sha Raku, not to mention the kabuki art and the intimate private tables inside, all promise a hip izakaya, a promise not kept by the kitchen and the staff. Booze aside, the confusing picture menu fails to truly excite, and those expecting extensive sushi and maki lists will be disappointed. The cozy, zonal layout of the restaurant also means that there can often be long minutes when there isn’t a single wait staff to make eye contact with—even though they’re smiling and helpful when they do notice you flailing for attention. Pair this with boring dishes like the assorted tofu (B90)—a tapas-like platter with three piles of tofu topped with three different sauces (including a ginger-sesame one that reminds us of airplane salad dressings)—and things can get pretty depressing. In particular, the overuse of katsuobushi, those brown dancing fish flakes, in this case on top of the daikon salad (B180), is one of the saddest new trends to hit the Asian dining scene lately. Still, after all that, it has to be said that dining at Sha Raku is not really a disaster, especially if you’re ok with the food playing second fiddle to the drinks. There are nice touches like the tuna cutlet amuse bouche and free sake pairings with certain dishes. There’s a long list of sakes, and the house rice wine is a reasonable B220 and can be shared by two people. Their wine list, too, stays firmly below the B1,500 mark and offers helpful tasting notes. Plus, drink-friendly standards like the dragon roll (shrimp tempura, eel and avocado, B390) are fresh and well-done, if a bit pricey. Dishes that aren’t necessarily wow-worthy remain fairly inoffensive and come in decent portions, like the diced steak with wasabi sauce (B320) and the salted and grilled mackerel (B220). Considering the saturation of Japanese restaurants and drinking holes in the city, there is a lot out there that’s way better than this. But if you live in the area and love to drink, you might end up here anyway.