By: Melissa Smith | K&L Sake Buyer
By: Melissa Smith | K&L Sake Buyer
The first time I tried sake it was at a sushi restaurant, served warm out of a carafe. While it didn't taste awesome, there was something exotic about drinking the beverage of Japan while having an 'authentic' Japanese meal. Sake is typically viewed as something to simply wash down your raw fish, not a beverage that showcases expert craftsmanship and centuries of tradition.
When I moved to Napa after high school, there was a sake brewery right at the base of the valley. I often went there to do the tastings because they never carded me. At that age, my palate probably wasn't able to assess the quality of the sake, but I remember it tasted good. Later, at age twenty, I treated myself to the French Laundry for my birthday. The gentleman that was a back waiter at the time (and is now a Master Sommelier) brought over a glass of Divine Droplets sake to pair with my course. Over thirteen years later, neither of us remember what the course was, but nevertheless it was an eye opening experience to know that sake was being served at the best restaurant in the world.
At age twenty-one, midway through culinary school, I moved to Tokyo. At the time I still mostly drank beer. All this changed the night we were summoned to an omakase dinner in a hidden location within the Four Seasons ten acre tea garden. The entire experience was beyond description, but what stood out to me was my first sip of sake. My eyes lit up like it was Christmas morning. I remember the chef nodding in approval as he watched me take a second sip and nearly melt out of my chair, he then whispered that it was $800 a bottle.
Now as the sake buyer for K&L, I can honestly say we have the best selection of any online wine and spirits store in the country. I bring in extremely limited quantities of very small production sakes from the best regions in Japan. So while we may have a limited selection, it is constantly revolving, ensuring that the sakes are at the peak of freshness, and everything is the best of its class.
But who drinks sake? Most people in the US don't see it as a daily drinker, unless they are planning a fancy Japanese dinner at home. Many have had nothing but mediocre or bad sake and therefore lack a desire to drink it.
I wish that I could take each one of you into my home and set you down for a flight of sakes paired with dishes that aren't based in Japanese cuisine.
Ever had Riesling with spicy Asian food? Or Zinfandel with Mexican? Champagne with sushi? Try sake with Indian! Or Blue Cheese. Even Italian food in its simplicity can make for an ideal sake pairing. Sake is no more than rice, yeast, water, and koji. There are nuances to be sure, but the key to sake and food pairing is simplcity: simple pure ingredients or dishes, with few components.
Once you graduate to true sake nerd, you will come to realize the significance of the water in sake. You notice more variation based on the water table from which the sake is made versus what region the rice where the rice is grown.
I'll spare you the nerdy details, but I had an incredible sake and food pairing experience recently that I want to outline for you. The 'who's who' of Northern California Sommeliers joined at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco for a sake and food pairing seminar lead by MS Emily Wines and MS David Glancy. The two Masters were given the same five course menu prepared by Chef David Bazirgan along with approximately twenty sakes to pair with each course. In one of the coolest competitions ever, we tasted and rated each selected pairing by each Master Som. It was a tasting that combined Western philosophy and Eastern tradition, with exceptional food and sakes.
First up was shrimp ceviche, with chilis, julienned radish, a citrus vinaigrette, and avocado puree. This delicate, almost feminine dish, was elevated by Emily's selection of Chokaisan Junmai Ginjo Nigori. The texture of the sake and nice acid on the finish complemented the dish well. The other sake came off as a bit flabby and unexciting.
Next was the lobster salad on brioche. We all agreed that the proportion of brioche to lobster salad was off and therefore compromised the pairing. One sake muted the flavor of the dish, while the other really brought out the ingredients in the lobster salad.
The third dish was a truffle flan with yellow foot mushrooms. (My mouth is watering just thinking about this dish). Such a small and seductive dish in itself, this became otherworldly paired with the Manabito Kimoto Junmai Ginjo. The lactic/umami components of the sake combined with the earthy nature of the Kimoto style, with just the right amount of acid, made this one of the most transformative dishes I've ever experienced. Every time I have with food it it blows me away; it is by far one of the best sakes to pair with food. It doesn't always show well on its own in tastings because this not an aperitif sake, this is a food sake. For the best pairing, skip the simple preparations and go for something cooked and complex, that will match the uniqueness of the Kimoto style.
The second sake that was paired with the truffle flan dish really brought out almost a forest floor aspect to the dish, which was also wonderful. David and his Sous Chef Franklin Liao graciously shared the recipe with me, which I've included at the end of this piece.
Lamb belly with spiced eggplant puree is an unexpected sake pairing, which is exactly why this experience was so eye-opening for me. The lamb belly was a combination of that gamy, lamb-y goodness and the richest crispy bacon ever. Both Somms chose a Nama Genshu sake (unpasteurized and undiluted). One came off as almost gamy, too, like freshly butchered meat, with a wild unplaceable nose, that paired perfectly with the dish. The other was the Minato Harbor Nama Genshu (“the bad boy sake in a can”), which would have been great if served chilled, but at room temperature came off as very hot and high in alcohol.
The final pairing was one of the coolest. A hard blue cheese on crostini. Nothing could be simpler to drive the point home. The glutamic acid in the sake paired perfectly with the glutamic-rich cheese, as it would other umami-rich foods like mushrooms, pork, fish, and parmesan. One was a lactic rich, creamy, yeasty nigori sake, which was a perfect, and very surprising pairing. The other was Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo, which had an almost beer like reaction with the cheese, complimenting it in that way beer and salty foods work together. One makes you want the other one more and more, and it’s a magic combo.
Ultimately, if you’re into food, and enjoy something to sip along side it, give sake a try. There are sakes at every price point that I guarantee are leagues above what you've had in nearly every sushi bar!
Black Truffle Flan
Courtesy of Chef David Bazirgan and Sous Chef Franklin Liao
Yield: About 25 2oz ramekins
40g black truffle (in a jar, from a good specialty food purveyor
1000g (1qt) half and half
8 egg yolks
3 whole eggs
15g banyuls vinegar
20g soy sauce
Preheat oven to 325F
Place half and half, salt and truffle in a medium pot and bring to 110F. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks, eggs, vinegar and soy sauce in a bowl. Lightly whisk to incorporate. Once the half/half is warm, slowly pour over eggs remembering to constantly whisk. Take time to slowly pour over the eggs as the heat can cause the eggs to scramble. Alternatively, place the half/half and truffle in a blender. At medium speed add the eggs one at a time. Add the soy sauce and vinegar. Strain into a bowl that is set in an ice bath. Let the truffle base chill for 1 hour. Preferably overnight. The air bubbles will have time to settle and ensure even cooking.
Place 2oz of the truffle base into ovenproof ramekins. Next, fill a baking tray with hot water about half way and add the ramekins. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and pierce holes evenly around to allow steam to escape. Place in a preheated 325F oven for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, rotate the tray 180 degrees to ensure even cooking. The flans will be done when the center produces a slight wiggle or when a cake tester comes out clean. When the flans are cooked place on a sheet tray to cool. Refrigerate until further use.