Expectations were high for Hojoko, the Fenway neighborhood newcomer from Tim and Nancy Cushman of O Ya fame. We knew we'd be getting a more casual, moderately priced menu from the folks behind one of Boston's best (and priciest) sushi restaurants — but we didn't know the seriously top-notch Japanese tavern fare would be found in such awesomely kooky surroundings. (Do you like Pac-Man, Hello Kitty and 1950s Americana? You're in luck.)
Also spectacular: the sake program overseen by Alyssa DiPasquale, sake professional and longtime managerial linchpin within the Cushman restaurants. She's pulled together a program that deftly complements the inventive eats, including sake varieties served in sealed cups, by the magnum bottle (!) and offered from a keg. (DiPasquale believes it to be the first place to find keg sake in America.) We took a tour of the space to learn more, and discovered a trio of Hojoko-approved sake-plate pairings that bring out the best in one another.
The izakaya-style restaurant is housed within the Verb Hotel, a new Fenway-area property with a rock 'n' roll motif and midcentury California style. (Think citrus tones and furnishings out of a 1950s surf movie.) Hojoko plays along. It's colorful and kitschy, with seating in a main dining room, at a long sushi counter, at a campy cocktail bar and on a patio by the hotel's pool.
DiPasquale curated quite a collection of sake, and it includes sake cups: individually sealed six-ounce cups that — when you consider sake contains about 15% alcohol — give a pretty good buzz for your buck at $16-$18 each. Among the styles offered is Yuri Masamune Honjozo, produced in the northern Akita region of Japan by the award-winning Saiya Brewing Company. "This is one of the first premium sakes that Nancy [Cushman] ever gave me, and it's what got me hooked," says DiPasquale. She decided to pair it with crispy chicken tails ($7) speckled with black truffle salt and tsukune ($8), skewered chicken meatball with ginger, sesame, umeboshi tare, shiso and egg yolk on top. "This sake starts with a little fruit and ends very dry, so it's a super complement to grilled chicken," says DiPasquale. "It's well-rounded, a subtle partner to the food rather than a competitor."
Donna Reed might dine on these colorful tables with the spirit of 1950s kitchen countertops. It's a colorful space — and we're not just referring to the Japanese cartoons that play on loop on a projection screen in the dining room.
It's also stuffed to the gills with bric-a-brac, including a (working!) tabletop arcade console loaded with Pac-Man and other vintage video games. (You're sitting in old salon chairs — still with their overhead hair dryers — as you play.)
Because bigger is better, sake is also served in 1.8L magnum bottles. Among DiPasquale's favorites: Ichishima Shuzo Honjozo. Honjozos are food-friendly, easy-to-drink sakes that have had a bit of distiller's alcohol added to the fermenting mash. DiPasquale points to the unique water source as key to what makes Ichishima Shuzo so distinct: it's produced in Niigata, a mountainous region on the west coast where large snow melts create a source of ultra-pure, low-mineral water. (And the cold climate enhances long fermentation times.) She paired it with three creative rolls: Housemade Foie Gras "Spam" rolls ($8/$16) with robata grilled pineapple and yuzu kosho; Maine Jonah Crab California rolls ($7/$14) with avocado, cucumber and Kewpie tobiko; and Maine Lobster Tail rolls ($12/$24) with tomalley rice and sea urchin jus. "This sake drinks very dry, which can help clean up some of the richness from something like the foie gras roll, but it still works with the lighter options like the California roll," says DiPasquale.
Soak up the sun — while you still can. Seating spills out onto a patio by the Verb Hotel pool.
Behold: Bushido Keg Sake. DiPasquale says she's confident that Hojoko is the first place in the country to consistently serve keg sake. With keg sake "you're getting the fullest, freshest expression of the sake," she says. "The vessel is made of special material that doesn't impart any flavor to the sake, and Hojoko is the first account in the country." She paired it with Okonomiyaki ($8) with smoky bacon, shiitake, yam, truffle Kewpie and "Hojoko honkytonky sauce." Comments DiPasquale: "This sake really cleans up the rich, bold, super-umami blast."