**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

How do you go, in a span of under three years, from running a 12-seat restaurant counter specializing in sustainable fish and Japanese breakfasts, to helming a sprawling, 100-plus seat hangar of an izakaya?

For Rule of Thirds co-founders J.T. Vuong and George Padilla, the transformation was made possible by the close-knit creative community they built during their five years together at Yuji Haraguchi’s  Okonomi in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This is where Vuong, as head chef, and Padilla, as general manager, offered Vuong’s beautifully restrained ichiju-sansai breakfasts, and later, weekend evening omakase menus. So many of the people they would eventually partner with at Rule of Thirds, from Todd Enany, Adam Landsman, and Jaime Young of Sunday Hospitality to their sake importers, interior and graphic designers and ceramic artists, were regular customers at Okonomi.

Rule of Thirds opened on the border of Williamsburg and Greenpoint in early 2020, a neighborhood filled with two-story warehouses and the feel of a living, evolving community. On offer is Vuong’s extensive roster of globally influenced izakaya fare (a pork shoulder tonkatsu that’s been marinated in Brooklyn Kura sake lees; kanpachi box sushi pressed with pickled cherry leaves, or a hot honey and yuzu salad with buckwheat groats), a 40-label sake list and a 25-plus natural wine list curated by Padilla. “I like to think of wine as the pickles on the table,” he says, “a vibrant and refreshing acidic counterpoint” to the seamless meshing of food and sake. Approximately a third of the sake list consists of fresh and lively nama, or unpasteurized, sakes, many of them brewed with the old-fashioned bodaimoto, kimoto or yamahai starter methods. For me, the combination of delicious food, sake, and Rule of Thirds’ modern Japanese vibe makes it well worth the three-subway trek it takes to get there.

Padilla and Vuong’ migration from Williamsburg to Greenpoint happened after departing Okonomi in 2018, feeling constrained by its small size. The duo knew they wanted to continue their collaboration, so they worked a variety of restaurant and hospitality gigs and on their day off, held a short-lived pop-up called Yasumi Project at Brooklyn Kura. Then in 2019 they heard from their friends at Sunday Hospitality, who were on the hunt for a team to step into the 85-seat space recently vacated by the Scandinavian restaurant Norman. The new concept would anchor a 23,000-square-foot creative and co-working space in Greenpoint owned by BMW and centered on its Mini Cooper division’s A/D/O design studio.

Padilla and Vuong were up for the challenge. But shortly after they opened Rule of Thirds, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and in May 2020, A/D/O, which had become an incubator for progressive design thinking, abruptly announced its imminent closure. Rule of Thirds annexed half of the remaining A/D/O space, adding a soon-to-open retail bottle shop called Bin Bin Sake, and the capacity to stage events for up to 500 people.

The name Rule of Thirds refers to the concept of dividing a visual field into a grid of thirds—an aid to creating a strong, balanced picture. The name is both a nod to the space’s design-centric origins, says Padilla, and the “synergy and collaboration” that is at the core of the restaurant. “The most interesting things happen at the intersection of the grid lines,” he explains.

The restaurant, outfitted with shoji-like screens, wooden latticework, soft lighting and lots of natural wood surfaces, is the work of interior designer Loren Daye, while graphic designers Andy Chen and Waqas Jawid captured the restaurant’s spirit of playfulness. Padilla called on other friends from his time at Okonomi, ceramic artists Yuko Nishikawa, Erin Louise Clancy, and twins Carly and Alana Miller for fittingly shibui tableware, ochoko sake cups and mobiles, some of which adorn the many private rooms scattered through the restaurant. “We wanted to take that community feeling of Okonomi, and transfer it to Rule of Thirds,” explains Padilla. A tall order given the size of his new home!

What We Drank

But sitting in one of the many meditative private rooms last week, chatting over a flight of five sakes with Padilla and server Sophia Sioris (who takes the lead on sake-related projects, including the forthcoming retail shop), it did feel like a cozy communal sake experience. Especially when Padilla warmed up a carafe of Terada Honke Brewery’s Katori 90, a junmai nama genshu and one of my favorite “natural” sakes. Padilla likes it for its versatility, noting that in addition to serving it warm it’s good for sake tonics. “I especially love it at room temperature,” he adds.

There was an easy-drinking, softly acidic Heiwa Shuzo “Kid” junmai that we tasted both chilled and warmed, which paired nicely with a tuna tartare and nori dish as well as a citrus-accented plate of binchotangrilled maitake mushrooms slicked with olive oil, an herbaceous gremolata, and a showering of lemon zest.

I was particularly excited to taste some of Kato Sake Works’ products: a bright and creamy Pilot nigori sake that’s lightly carbonated in the bottle. The back label explains that the sake is “a prototype we’re playing around with,” and requests feedback from tasters. For comparison’s sake, we also tried Kato’s “Hazy” nigori, a grassy, slightly cloudy bottle brewed with Calrose table rice polished to 60 percent. Both were nice foils for Vuong’s exemplary tsukune, ground chicken wrapped around skewers and coated with a sweet-and-savory Worcestershire-egg yolk jam. We closed out the tasting with the powerfully savory Hojo Biden yamahai junmai sake from Mii no Kotobuki, poured from an isshobin (magnum) format bottle specially brewed for Rule of Thirds.

Padilla fell into the hospitality business after moving from Portland, Oregon to New York City to attend Columbia’s Master of Public Health program in environmental health policy. His own tastes, developed on the job, are wide ranging, spanning his first discovery in 2014 during his early days at Okonomi of Kiku-Masamune’s kimoto junmai, which the restaurant sold by the cup, to current favorites Akishika Shuzo’s Black Moheji, a “powerful and moving sake,” brewed with Omachi rice from a single paddy, and Kato Sake Work’s yuzu Citrus Junos sake. “The sake flavor itself leads,” Padilla says of the yuzu sake, “unlike most others that just taste like juice.” He is also a fan of Uehara Shuzo’s Soma no Tengu usu-nigori junmai ginjo nama genshu for its often perplexing balance of creamy fruitiness and firm woody bitterness.

When and How to Visit Rule of Thirds

A good introduction to Rule of Thirds’ sake list is through its Bin Bin Sake pop-ups on weekends (check the restaurant’s Resy page or its Instagram account. There are also ticketed, multi-course dinners like the current Uni & Friends and Friends, held in the restaurant’s tented, outdoor “Winter Village” space.

Padilla’s vision of the restaurant as a multi-faceted hospitality platform, a “whole ecosystem,” is in line with his own environmental studies and the constantly mutating ferment of the sake world itself. By staging events like “kanpai comedy nights,” or tenugui bottle- wrapping workshops or perhaps even guided, immersive theater-like sake experiences, he wants to connect different parts of that ecosystem, and teach people to “live with sake,” both on nights out and at home.

“My dream is to have everyone who visits our sake shop pick up an isshobin of sake—or actually, two,” he says. “One for the fridge and one to leave out at room temperature.”