Thursday, May 22, 2008
Tokyo Table Sake Night - CLOSED
Last night I went out with my FoodDigger coworkers to Tokyo Table's Sake Night event. This was the third instance of a supposedly monthly event, but the turn out was relatively low. They claim it has to do with the short two-week notice, but I also wouldn't discount the $10 price increase to $45 per person. Still, $45 gets you unlimited sake and food pairings. I definitely saw groups of people emphasizing the tasting a little less than the actual downing of plastic cup after cup of alcohol.
Personally, I've been a fan of sake ever since my first cup. I have never developed a taste for wine, but beer and sake are my drinks of choice with a meal. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that sake, although frequently referred to as rice wine, is actually more similar to rice beer because of its fermenting process. Rice is fermented through the help of a specific mold instead of hops used in beer, but they are both processed from grain not fruit like wines. With my Moleskine reporter pad in hand, I ventured into the restaurant. Unfortunately, I did not bring my camera. Instead, I scanned images of the complimentary info cards they provided with most of the sakes. I will go through each one and explain my impressions of them. Frequently, my opinion will not match the descriptions on the cards, but I'm speaking as a sake newbie so I haven't developed quite such a sophisticated palette. Before I review each booth for the food and the alcohol, I will explain some terms common for sake and wine in general.
Premium class sakes have designations that let you know roughly the quality of the wine. They're primarily classified according to two major criteria: whether additional alcohol is added to extract flavor and how much the rice is milled before brewing. When pure distilled alcohol is added, additional water is also added so the alcohol content remains the same. This is called honjozo sake. In contrast, junmai sake is made with only the rice, water and fermentation mold without additional alcohol. This tends to be more expensive because of its purity and also more complex in flavor and body.
Before sake is brewed, the rice needs to be milled to remove the husk and other impurities. The more the rice is milled, the smaller the kernels and purer the drink. All junmai sakes must be made from rice milled to at least 70% of its original size. Sake from rice milled to at least 60% is termed ginjo. This process of further rice polishing is labor intensive and adds significant costs to the process. Once the polishing has reached 50% or more, the sake is now classified daiginjo.
Here is a list of terms I will use to describe each sake. They are pulled from Wikipedia's list of wine descriptors and can be used for all types of wine.
Acidic-noticeable sense of acidity or tartness
Balanced-all flavors pronounced equally
Body-sense of alcohol or feeling in the mouth
Bouquet-layers of aromas and flavors
Closed-not especially aromatic
Complex-deep flavors with combinations of aromas
Dry-lacking sensation of sweetness
Finish-perception and lingering feeling after swallowing
Sweet-sensation of sugars
Now join me for my first real exploration of this delicious Japanese spirit. I will run through each booth with my impressions of the sake, food and the combination of both.
Though technically the last booth, this was the bar at the front of the restaurant and so the first to greet customers. A friendly waitress poured from silver martini shakers house saketinis, fruity girl drinks that I'm not ashamed to like. They were cold and refreshing, crushed ice gave them a slushy consistency with hardly a tinge of alcohol. The first one was the Key Lime Saketini, slightly tart and acidic but tasted watered down. Second, our bartender poured out little plastic cups of Yuzu Saketinis, using the fruit of the Japanese citrus yuzu. It's not a common fruit in the States, but you'll most likely encounter it in ponzu sauce. This second martini was better than the first, the flavors more pronounced but still lacking all that much depth. The third Saketini, Geri's Berries, had all the flavor that the other two lacked. It was made of a mixture of fruit juices including pomegranate which manifested itself heavily in the drink.
Making my way back to the proper first booth, I came across a young waiter wearing a sponsored kimono with red, green and yellow accents. He bid me over to his table to try the three sakes with pairing of miso cod and albacore delight rolls. The miso cod was delicate, balancing well with the light miso-soy and scallions. The albacore sushi was actually quite rich and truly a delight. Even though I typically shun special California rolls labeled "sushi" I can indulge in my inner crab and avocado roll from time to time. The tuna was more of an afterthought. Initially, the waiter poured me the kanchiku. The description was not far off, I definitely tasted a fruity finish but it felt slightly too hot for me. The jun shimeharitsu did not have the overpowering alcoholic taste of the previous sake, but felt light and crisp. This was especially memorable because I distinctly remember how aromatic it was as I brought the glass to my lips. The dassai did not taste particularly complex, but it was well balanced. Not counting the first three saketinis, I handled my first three glasses pretty well. No effects yet.
Unfortunately, I do not have any cool collectors' sake cards for the two shochikubai sakes at booth 7. Kevin, the server, explained that these were the two house sakes that are used to make the saketinis. Under the watchful guise of the shochikubai sales rep, he explained to me how the special shochikubai organic is a draft sake. Draft meaning, in Japan, unpasteurized to maintain a smoother taste. I couldn't taste any difference, but its nice to know that the rice is organic with no preservatives or sulfites. For your information, sulfites in red wine give me the worst headache. Kevin told me this is paired best with cold or vinegar-marinated foods, but he was serving char-siu and lobster dynamite, neither of which could be considered cold or light. The char-siu, prepared in house, was deliciously fatty and would have gone well with a bowl of ramen. The lobster dynamite, a combination of lobster, broccoli and creamy dynamite sauce was mouth-watering. I actually came back for seconds of that later on in the night. The shochikubai ginjo is the house sake. I thought the flavors were transparent, very straight-forward and bold. I appreciated it for its boldness, but I typically like a more subtle wine where I have to search out the hidden flavors.
A hapa waiter with a cheerful disposition dispensed the next three sakes. His table featured anago tempura (deep-fried sea eel) and unagi & avocado rolls. To pair with the anago, he poured the jinyu 100 poems because of its sweetness and complex bouquet. Typically when matching sakes to food, the heavier the food, the lighter the sake and vice versa. You don't want to be overwhelmed with too many flavors, nor do you want to be underwhelmed. The jinyu 100 poems had a fruity, sweet flavor that I greatly enjoyed. It lacked the astringency of the other drier sakes. For the more flavorful unagi roll, my hapa friend selected the kurosawa kimoto and kikusui. Both these sakes felt empty or undistinguished. They felt too dry for me, even when paired with food. After another three glasses of alcohol, I waved good-bye to my hapa buddy and moved on.
Across the room, the waitress at booth 6 caught my eye. I wandered over, made a little idle chit-chat. Hey, I was there to socialize and plug our upcoming website fooddigger.com. "So, how long have you worked here?" Tamanohikari tasted too dry, but the pleasant finish of rice made me reconsider my first impression. I always enjoy rice flavors; when you taste it, it almost feels like a reward. Paired with the hamachi carpaccio, the sake did improve. For the life of me, I could not figure out how the hamachi was a carpaccio and not just a sashimi. The menu said it was sprinkled with a ponzu dressing, but I felt that the dressing was hardly noticeable. "So, you worked as a bartender, that's impressive." I preferred the daishichi kimoto, with its sweetness and airy body. "Yeah, I'm a food blogger. Check out my blog sometime." The yuzu pepper chicken was by far the worst dish of the night. Some parts were burnt, obviously overcooked and dry. It had not flavor beyond a protein supplement. "Well...I guess I'll see you around." I walked away, slightly more informed, but also a bit dejected.
Good thing booth 3 only had two sakes and some hearty food. At this point, I was feeling ten little glasses of sake and four tiny saketini shots (I went back for another Geri's Berries). The Szechuan-style spicy tofu hit the spot. Served in a cup because of its soupy consistency, the spiciness took some of the edge off the alcohol. It actually went well with the nanbu bijin, which had a sweet, soft finish. The lightness of the sake balanced the weight of the tofu sauce. I reluctantly tried one of the Philadelphia rolls. I've always been skeptical of cream cheese and salmon sushi, and rightly so. The Philly roll was cloying, stuck to my mouth with an unpleasant texture. I finished it before moving on to the shirakabegura. This sake definitely had a grainy rice flavor, but it interestingly also had a thick body that lingered in my mouth. It felt denser than the sakes before. Finishing this booth, I took a break at the water table and cleansed both my palette and my head. I wasn't drunk, but the alcohol had blunted my taste buds and I started to worry that I won't be able to fully experience the rest of the sake. Still, there were two more booths to go, including their most expensive sake.
Considering how much I've had to drink at this point, I still managed to maintain a pretty lucid conversation with this waitress. She explained to me the different grades of premium sake, what all the Japanese meant. I also asked her about serving the sake warm. It seems that only cheap sake is served warm because the heat masks the flavor. All the sake served tonight was slightly chilled. I think I managed to appear relatively sober speaking to her, though apparently not sober enough. The yaemon, paired with tempura roll worked nicely. A fruity flavor seemed to work together well with fried foods. The otokoyama had a medium body, nothing extraordinary. I had that with the ginger Kurobuta pork. This pork, known commonly as Berkshire pork, is known for its intense marbling. Unlike typical American pigs that are now bred lean to suit market preference, Berkshire pigs are prized for the richness of flavor. They are often compared to the wagyu beef, mostly notably from the Kobe area of Japan.
I saved their best sake for last. While I did agree that the kubotoa manju had all the complexity that you would expect in an ultra-premium sake, I didn't find it especially delicious. Just because it has richness of flavor, doesn't mean that those flavors worked well together. Just to make sure, I had another glass of the kubota manju. Still nothing struck me besides its smoothness. I actually preferred the lesser okunomatsu with its sweet rice flavor. At this point, I have gotten a better sense of the flavors I like to experience in my sakes. The agadashi eggplant was sadly served too cold to be properly enjoyed. The tuna tataki salad however, couldn't suffer from being cold. It tasted soft and buttery.
All in all, this was a truly gratifying experience. My boss drove me home (always have a designated driver for tastings) where I compiled the information I heard and the notes I took. I discovered that like white wine, I enjoyed sweeter sakes with long finishes. The additional pronounced flavor of rice is also a plus. I encourage you to try a sake at your next Japanese meal. Look for anything that says ginjo, daiginjo or jumai and you should be okay.
My Favorites: Jun Shimaeharitsu and Jinyu 100 Poems
Thanks to John Gauntner of sake-world.com for sake information.