Iyaiya Sanbai: A Contemporary Izakaya with Traditional Roots

Sip craft sake in this Kyoto-inspired, smoke-free take on the Japanese bar-restaurant

Passing beneath the noren of Iyaiya Sanbai, we're warmly greeted by our hostess and led to the kitchen counter seats where we’re sat face-to-face with the head chef Iwasaki-san. With over twenty years of experience, we watch him diligently debone this evening’s fish with the finesse of a tailor working silk, and settle into an evening ahead of fine-dining—"izakaya"-style.

Given the elegant surroundings of Iyaiya Sanbai, it’d be easy to think that the label “izakaya” is a PR misnomer chosen for its broad and familiar appeal. But that’s exactly the point. Iyaiya Sanbai has all the personality and heart of the best izakaya but with the looks and mannerisms of an upscale bistro.

Iyaiya Sanbai Tokyo

Counter seats at Iyaiya Sanbai.

Gone are the sticky wooden tables and plastic posters; instead a Richard Serra print hangs near a gleaming bar stacked with Hibiki whiskey and rare sake from premium manufacturers across Japan. The dove gray walls are offset by the wood interiors, while warm-colored Edison bulbs hang in the place of the usual LED strip lights, making for the perfect #eatingfortheinsta hue.

Plus, there’s one added refreshment, the place is completely smoke-free. For two experienced izakaya-goers fed up with the lingering stench of cigarettes after what feels like every evening meal anywhere in the city—this is a godsend.

Premium sake paired with premium ingredients

Seating 40 guests, an arrangement of high bar stools and intimate tables create a cozy and casual atmosphere where you can while away the hours in after-work conversation—exactly what my friend and I were here to do.

Glancing over the drinks selection after a long week, we knew there was only one thing to be ordered: sake! With a choice of fruity, fresh, or dry, we opted for a glass of Mie and Iwate Prefectures’ finest local brew and settled into deciding on our meals.

What looked like classic izakaya menu choices were penned on hanging paper around the central counter. But as two visitors who are not yet well versed in Japanese, and a menu heavy on kanji, we asked our hostess Oki-san to help us decide what to eat.

Iyaiya Sanbai Menu

What’s on the menu at Iyaiya Sanbai?

Osusume!” (recommendation) she beamed, apparently having made our decision for us, before heading off to prepare our order.

First, Oki-san brought over an Obanzai platter, a sample selection of traditionally prepared konnyaku, hijiki seaweed, daikon, and Jacko fish, with the welcome addition of incredibly tender chicken liver very subtly flavored. If you’re like me who finds liver too overpowering, this was the best I’ve ever tasted. Made with ingredients, several of them fresh from Kyoto, it was healthy and nourishing, and felt more like a luxury kaiseki (multi-course) meal than a starter tasting plate.

 

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We’re told that Obanzai is a staple of Kyoto cuisine. It’s fitting, considering that the man directing Iyaiya Sanbai is Kyotoite, Atsushi Nakahigashi, the CEO of One Rice One Soup Inc. of New York.

A refined approach to Japanese casual dining

From there, the attention to detail across our meal unfolded in an utterly seamless way. In keeping with the restaurant’s refined interior, the ingredients worked together perfectly; the potato salad garnished with iburi gakko (smoked pickled radish); the freshest yuzu seasoning melting into our shabu-shabu pork stew; the sweet fish rice dish bubbling in its pan. One by one, every dish that was laid in front of us was as flavorful as it was artfully presented.

Rice with ayu fish at Iyaiya Sanbai Tokyo

Baby ayu (sweetfish) and sansho spice on rice.

One by one, every dish that was laid in front of us was as flavorful as it was artfully presented.

Even the rice at Iyaiya Sanbai is awarded precise attention. A blend of three types of specially selected rice from Kyoto, it was steamed to fluffy perfection in a traditional rice pot.

Iyaiya Sanbai Rice

One of Iyaiya Sanbai’s specialties is its rice.

But the highlight had to be the warm ham croquette, served with a side of Dijon mustard and house-made Worcestershire sauce. As we excitedly set aside the chopsticks for their metal counterparts, the first slice into the crust brought a waft of home-cooking to our noses.

Iyaiya Sanbai Warm Ham Croquette Tokyo

Our favorite dish of the night — the unassuming but oh-so flavorful ham croquette.

The ham had the consistency of pork confit and was so flavorful and a delightfully unexpected serving on such a traditional Japanese menu.

Stuffed to the brim we skipped dessert, but not before being given our leftovers in the form of a cute rice ball to take home!

This is a place best served with girlfriends, free from the odors and noise of the regular izakaya, or for a low-key date that strikes just the right balance between relaxed and romantic. Iyaiya Sanbai is three bowls of chic, contemporary, and classical izakaya dining just like its name—and label—suggests.

The Deets

Iyaiya Sanbai

Address: Aoyama Bldg B1F, 1-2-3 Kita-Aoyama, Minato Ward, Tokyo 107-0061
Access: 1-minute walk from Aoyama Itchome Station, Exit 0
Hours: (Mon-Sat) Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Dinner: 5:30 p.m.-11p.m. Closed on irregular holidays (please check the website).
Reserve: Online or call 03-3470-1838