Although until now my store of sake knowledge has been even smaller than my wine knowledge, thanks to this event I know now my way around the sake department of the store. That tasting six sakes with accompanying tasty Japanese tidbits could be called “work” was even better.
A dozen of us gathered in a sunny corner of the restaurant flanked by vibrant works of art; owner Youko Yamamoto is an artist herself, her husband is a sculptor, and there are frequent art exhibits. Master sake sommelier Masa Fukuda began the event by telling us that we would be tasting sakes from three different breweries, either imported or made in the U.S. by a company called Sake One, for which he works.
We would taste six dishes created by Yamamoto, and we’d see that generally lighter food flavors go with lighter sake styles, bold sake with heartier foods. Yamamoto encouraged us to experiment with different pairings and discover our own likes and dislikes. Fukuda admitted that sour flavors in some foods make them tough to pair with sakes. There are 2000 sake breweries in Japan (if you want to get quite technical, sake is closer to beer than wine because of the way it’s made), but the Japanese are drinking less sake these days and every year five or six breweries, called kura, go out of business.
Murai is on its sixth generation of sake makers, a kura that is more than 150 years old and still family-owned, in the northern part of the main island of Japan. Their soft water makes a mild sake, said Fukuda. We tasted their Tanrei Junmei to start things off, which I found very good but to me similar to standard-issue sushi bar sake. Tanrei means dry, crisp and of very high quality, and Junmei means pure, containing, only rice, water, yeast and koji. Water for making sake must be stellar in purity and mineral content. Yeast affects flavor and aroma of the sake. Koji, or aspergillus oryzae, is an enzymatic mold that helps convert the rice starch to sugar and then alcohol.
I had a hard time detecting a difference between this room-temperature, unchilled wine and a cup of hot sake from my usual Japanese restaurant that has cooled off. It had a simple, noncomplex taste with a bit of fruitiness, like underripe pear with a hint of almond (nut not paste). I didn’t detect the melon notes claimed by the brewer.
With this sake, Yamamoto served us a scallop seviche, a soup spoon with a scallop morsel dressed with seaweed, sesame and citrus. Although it was delicious I felt as I sipped the sake that felt that the strong flavors killed the subtle taste of this particular rice wine, reducing its flavors to just rice and alcohol.
The next we tried became my second favorite of the bunch. Yoshinogawa Echigo Junmai is from the fifth-oldest brewery in Japan, and compared to the first Junmai, I found it less sharp, sweeter, richer, more complex and rounded, with notes of various fruits. Fukuda says he likes this one with super-fresh squid sashimi but we had some lovely dark brown organic sesame crackers, which were a nice complement, and a couple of nice cheeses from Big Cheese in Rosendale — a camembert and a zesty golden aged cheese. I found the cracker went better than the cheese, which kind of reduced sake #2 to tasting more like sake #1, in my opinion.
Our next foray was not a Junmei, meaning this sake had a little alcohol added to it. This can be done for several reasons. After World War II when rice was scarce it was done to stretch out what little sake the Japanese could make. “People needed their sake,” said Fukuda. “Especially after World War II.” Now some alcohol is still added to many sakes, but with the function of improving the aroma and flavor while stabilizing and preserving it. This sake was another from that old brewery, Yoshinogawa, this one called Gensen Karakuchi, Gensen meaning “strictly chosen” according to Fukuda, and Karakuchi “dry style.” This was very crisp and light-bodied with a bit of sharpness but not too much.
With it we ate cooked scallion segments with wakame seaweed and nuta, a sauce of red miso, mirin (rice wine for cooking) and organic cane juice. Fukuda said that a Junmei would have been too weak for such a dish, but this one stood up to the pungent sauce, and he was right.
Next on the list was an American sake made in Oregon, called simply “g.” This one really stood out from the rest in the appearance of the stylishly chunky opaque black bottle and in the sake’s sweet taste and syrupy texture. g packs a punch and is a very strong sake at 18 percent alcohol. Fukuda calls it “bold and strong” and recommends it with roast pork. He says that foods with juicy flavors like that improve it and bring out its fruitiness. The maker recommends beef, lamb or tuna. A beautiful slice of roast pork was served, studded with apricots and plums, topped with a purple rectangle of jelly and sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, Youko’s artistry evident.
Our next sample, the penultimate, emerged my clear favorite and also the favorite of the sommelier and the brewery president as well. Also from Yoshinogawa, this was Gokujo Ginjo, Gokujo meaning “exceptional” and Ginjo meaning it’s made from heavily milled rice, the essence of the rice grain after all the exterior stuff is buffed off. Coarser grades like Futsu are little milled, but the more the rice is milled, the better tasting because of the removal of fats and proteins in the outer layers.
It was mild, sweet and medium-bodied. Unlike with some of the others there was no sharpness, no boldness. This sake doesn’t jump out at you but eases its way subtly across your palate with an easy, pleasing herbaceousness. A sake with finesse. At $30 a bottle I won’t be buying many, but I will keep my eyes open for it.
Fukuda suggests grapes or sashimi as perfect food pairings with Gokujo Ginjo. It was fun to read one online review that found things I didn’t notice: melon rind, whipped cream, plantain and dried pineapple with jicama and radish in the finish! I guess my palate needs some more refinement …
Our final sampling was a very unusual organic unfiltered sake, American like g. This was Momokawa Nigori, a style of sake that is cloudy like pastis, milky white instead of clear. It has visible sediment and a creamy texture and sweetness on the tongue. Fukuda told us it would taste of banana and coconut, and he was right. I didn’t detect the maker’s claims of circus peanut and honey ice cream, though. This very citric and high-alcohol sake is good to go with dessert, or as dessert, and also stands up to spicy foods, Fukuda added.
In spite of its sweetness I found it a bit rough around the edges. With it we ate a zesty piece of tatsu chicken that was marinated in soy, ginger and garlic, and then fried in potato starch rather than flour. It was served cold but was good, tangy with rice vinegar.
Sake is a 3000-year-old beverage, and it looks like at this point they’ve gotten it right. I had several examples of fine beverages that go well with a variety of foods, sakes I’d look forward to drinking again.
The fresher the better; sake should be consumed within a week or month if possible, and its shelf life tops out at two years. Don’t push it past that, Fukuda advised. Drink it hot or cold? Somewhere in between is generally best, so the flavor nuances come out. Heating sake erases its subtlety somewhat, and in Japan it is only heated in cold weather and only to body temperature, not super-hot like many Japanese restaurants here do, because it is difficult to warm it to the right temperature without it getting too hot.
Gomen-Kudasai is just over two years old, serving noodle dishes, sushi and home-style cooking with an emphasis on healthy food in an ambience steeped in art in many forms. But the eatery is also an extravaganza of Japanese culture, with other events besides the sake tastings. They include art exhibitions and openings, live music and classes in Japanese cooking, ikebana flower arranging, and go, which is a game similar to Japanese chess. Call 255-8811 for information on upcoming events. ++