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Tan Izakaya serves shareable, approachable dishes in cozy, welcoming atmosphere

| Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, 6:39 p.m.
The food menu at Tan Izakaya will keep diners on their toes, with almost 40 different sushi and maki options alone.
Laura Zorch
The food menu at Tan Izakaya will keep diners on their toes, with almost 40 different sushi and maki options alone.
Tan Izakaya on South Aiken Street, Pittsburgh is cozy and welcoming to diners.
Laura Zorch
Tan Izakaya on South Aiken Street, Pittsburgh is cozy and welcoming to diners.

A cheerful greeting zooms through the air upon entering Tan Izakaya: “Welcome to the shop.” In Japanese, of course. It's a warm introduction to this izakaya, a Japanese pub-style spot, by Mike Chen, the owner of the popular Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill and Sushi Too in Shadyside.

This cozy restaurant along South Aiken Avenue in Shadyside has a small bar hosting a range of sake, a handful of tables and booths inside the dark wood walls and an open garage door to the sidewalk in pleasant weather. It is ripe to be a hip new social space as the menu provides easily shareable dishes of sushi, sashimi, maki and yakitori presented with flare and comforting ramen and rice bowls.

But first things first: sake. I, personally, do not know much about the fermented rice beverages that line the back bar and barrels that hover above. I asked for a crash course from a helpful bartender on my second visit, so I knew the best way to imbibe. Although fermented in a way that looks more like brewing beer, sake shares similar flavor profiles and sensibilities with wine, such as being dry or sweet. Tan Izakaya offers chilled, premium sake by the glass or bottle in a range of profiles. Gekkaikan, a more widely available sake offering, is served hot.

After a short walk-through of the world of sake, I tried the Kikumasa — described as being “rich, smooth and semi-dry.” Presented in a tall wine glass, the slightly cloudy white sips did taste like a dry wine but with elements of whiskey to my untrained palate. It paired nicely with my first round of miso soup and tempura vegetables.

Tan Izakaya also boasts a small selection of shochu, the national distilled spirit of Japan. Definitely try a glass of sake or shochu on your visit. Ask your server for help navigating if you are also new to the drinks. Cheers!

The food menu will keep you on your toes as well, with almost 40 different sushi and maki options alone. Tuna, eel, sea urchin, octopus — the gang is all here. Sushi and sashimi is ordered in two and three pieces, respectively, or on larger combo plates. The maki rolls are enough to share with eight pieces.

Beautiful presentation accompanies the tasty rolls and bites, including a small mound of wasabi pressed with a floral design and real flowers as garnish. I indulged in a lobster roll that featured tempura-fried lobster tail with avocado, cucumber and a spicy mayo. It was a decadent option to be sure, with rich flavor and a lovely display, including the lobster tail that was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Dishes arrive to the table as they are prepared. Sharing really works best here to try more things and to eat together as the dishes are served. Soups and ramen notwithstanding — unless you like to slurp from the same bowl as your pals. The ramen options here are the most limited on the menu, with miso, shoyu and santouka featuring pork, or Los Angeles ramen with crispy chicken. All are served with a choice of soba (thin noodles) or udon (thick). Generous bowls are satisfying and will be even more so when the weather chills in the coming months.

My personal favorite bites on the menu belong to the yakitori. Bamboo skewers of a choice of charcoal-grilled meats or vegetables arrive to the table in flames. With everything from peppers to chicken gizzard and heart, these are at once the simplest and the most adventurous menu offerings. And at just $2 a pop, sampling many yakitori is easy and rewarding for the taste buds and the wallet.

With a sake in one hand and yakitori in the other, I can't help but think this place is going to do just fine in the East End foodscape. It is a good mix of fun, elegant, approachable and different that will keep diners coming back for more time and again.

Laura Zorch is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to the Tribune-Review.

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