This quaint bar specializes in two things: umeshu (plum wine) and pork. I have not had much of their food options, but I can give my opinions regarding the former based on the two times I’ve been here.
But first, you have to find it. The bar is something that tries to be off the beaten path, but is right on the beaten path. What I mean is, while it is very central in downtown Utsunomiya, right across from the Tobu department store and Genki Sushi, it’s easy to walk right by. I have, in fact, even after I’d been there the first time. Being on the 2nd floor of a building, all you have to look out for is a dull sign advertisement and a set of steep stairs (which be careful of if you drink a lot. They’re pretty intimidating to go down even when sober).
Once you go in, you are immediately surrounded by the rustic feel of the place. It’s all wood and stone, with an echo of background music floating about. Both times I went, it wasn’t too crowded, even though it was the weekend or a holiday, so it is a quite cozy atmosphere, rather than overwhelming and cramped despite the relatively small size. After you order your first drink, you are given a small bowl of spicy bean sprouts to make you eligible for the mysterious cover charge, as with most bars.
I will admit here and now: I despised umeshu. The several times I drank it previously, I couldn’t down more than one sip (two of it was of the decent variety)–to me, it tastes like cherry cough syrup (Robitussin) I was fed as a child. Japanese people tend to dislike root beer as they claim it tastes like medicine they had to down when they were young (lucky them, because root beer is delicious), and this is my American equivalent. I had had only one other type once before, which was sugar-sweet and tasted like a sort of candy, and therefore decent, but nothing I’d want to pay to drink in any case. Therefore, I came to this bar the first time expecting to be disappointed.
Luckily, I was not.
This bar offers over 50 different varieties from all around the country, including Tochigi-produced, all the way to Okinawa-produced. They are separated into various categories on a two-sided menu, such as “refreshing,” “sweet,” and “new arrivals.” Each individual type of umeshu then has a one line explanation to help describe the flavor (or otherwise), although I recommend asking (who I believe is) the very knowledgeable manager what his recommendations are. My first visit went something like this:
Me: “So I know this is going to be a difficult order, but to be completely honest, I don’t like umeshu. As in, I’ve never found one that I actually like. Do you have a recommendation?”
Manager: “What about it specifically do you not like? Too sweet? Too syrupy?”
Me: “Umm…I don’t know. To me it’s always tasted like cough medicine, but I don’t know exactly what quality about it makes me think so.”
Manager: “Do you like sake?”
Manager: “Okay, how about this one?”
And I just went with his recommendation, which was a good choice. What I ordered ended up being an umeshu-sake mix (called “Hiraizumi Umeshu” or 平泉梅酒 on the menu), with more emphasis on the sake than on the umeshu, which was good for me! I also tasted the variations that the friends I went with ordered: banana umeshu, hot pepper umeshu, and a “refreshing” category he was recommended by the manager. All were honestly good. The banana umeshu, like mine, had a very mellow, toned-down umeshu flavor and more banana than anything, and the hot pepper one had a nice kick at the end. Even the standard umeshu was drinkable for me–it was, in my mind, what “Japanese plum wine” should taste like–not cherry cough syrup. It was classic and crisp.
The second time I went with my umeshu-loving friend. The bar gets extra props from me this time, because 1) It turns out my friend and I have incredibly different tastes when it comes to “drinkable umeshu,” and 2) I ordered only standard (i.e. not mixed with banana, mango, shiso, hot pepper, sake, etc.) umeshu and still liked what I drank. Although I realize that you’re reading this post to learn what I recommend here, I’m sorry to say I’m not going to pretend I remember what exactly both of us ordered (2 drinks each), and unlike a responsible food blogger, I didn’t take a picture of the umeshu menu (that will come next time)–nor can I find it on the inter-webs (for shame, Google). What I do remember is my friend ordered one from Kanazawa and one from Kumamoto–the former being okay but not amazing, and the latter being like pure Robitussin to me and a dream in a glass to him. I ordered one on the sweeter end, which was fine but not amazing to me, yet completely undrinkable to him, and then another one that was called along the lines of “beautiful lady umeshu” (美人 something something), which was also good.
Therefore, in a way, it’s good that I don’t remember exactly what I got (I still blame Google, in any case), because clearly umeshu isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of drink. It’s hit or miss, and I’ll just leave the personal recommendations to the manager, who tends to be pretty spot on. Whether you’re an umeshu lover or hater, this place is definitely worth a go.
Open 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm, closes on set holidays.
Top image credit here.