Drink 2011: Sake to Me

Some San Franciscans still like it hot. That was the serving style so trendy 15 years ago, before the sake revolution began, before the best bottles started arriving from the microbreweries in Japan. Heat, after all, can muffle less palatable aromas, which made low-quality imports quaffable in an era when sake was all about the ceramic cup, the bamboo decor, and the sushi.

Today, sake is all about the good stuff as Bay Area retailers, wine bars, and restaurants play the brewers' advocate for Japan's most esteemed table beverage. At True Sake (560 Hayes at Laguna, 355-9555, www.truesake.com), a small Hayes Valley bottle shop, the shelf is maxed out with 200 bottles — and that's just a teasing sample of the huge volume of fine sake now streaming in from Japan. And though the sushi boom of the 1990s served as a convenient launching pad, sake is making a splash well beyond California rolls and nigiri. A case in point is the current commingling of sake and ethnic street food at Off the Grid's McCoppin site on Valencia Street. Here, True Sake recently introduced a weekly satellite location at Jackie's Vinoteca and Cafe (105 Valencia at McCoppin, 864-5225), featuring three sakes each Saturday night meant to match the offerings of that evening's food vendors.

Corkage Sake and Wine Shop (1304 Fulton at Divisadero, 567-6503), meanwhile, is exploring the uncharted territory of sake flights paired to artisanal cheeses. Yoshi Sako, the sommelier of this Western Addition retail shop and tasting bar, has found that bubbly sakes cut nicely through the buttery fat of Mount Tam Triple Crème, while dry and acidic, big-bodied kimoto or yamahai sakes can take on the moldy penicillium power of Point Reyes Blue. Sako also hosts a one-hour class each Monday at 6 p.m., a casual but brainy crash course focused on sake history and production — and with plenty of tasting.

At izakaya restaurants throughout the Bay Area, sake is playing the lead liquid role. Sozai (1600 Irving at 16th Ave., 742-5122, www.izakayasozai.com), Kasumi (2608 Ocean at 19th Ave., 586-8800), and Ippuku (2130 Center at Berkeley, 510-665-1969 www.ippukuberkeley.com) in Berkeley all complement their Japanese bar-bite menus of grilled meats, sashimi, and simple salads with upstanding sake lists. So does Nombe (2491 Mission at 21st St., 681-7150, www.nombesf.com), where a March 24 food-sake pairing dinner will showcase four traditional styles through a four-course meal of grilled meats, fish, veggies, and comfort foods. But the evening's show-stealer will be an 18-year-old koshu (aged) sake, whose notes of cinnamon, caramel, and cigar smoke will make a gentlemanly substitute for sherry while mandating something fudgy to match.

Chotto (3317 Steiner at Chestnut, 441-2223, www.chottosf.com), a 4-month-old izakaya in the Marina, is blending high-end craft sake with the urban science of mixology. "Sakes aren't meant to be used in cocktails," manager Derek Hunter concedes, "but they can be made into very nice cocktails." One is the Yuzu, a signature house drink of sake, yuzu juice, Prosecco, and honey. This libation comes from local mixology master Todd Smith, who says his goal in a sake cocktail is simply to accent its most fetching aromas and flavors.

But to some enthusiasts, sake cocktails are sacrilegious works of vanity that defile a fine and pure product. "I want to taste a sake exactly as the brewer intended it to taste," says Jessica Furui, sake director at Ozumo, a contemporary Japanese grill (161 Steuart at Howard, 882-1333; 2251 Broadway at Grand, Oakland; 510-286-9866, www.ozumo.com).

Gil Payne, the co-owner and sommelier at Nombe, calls himself a "sake purist" and remains wary of sake-based mixology. "Sake just stands up so beautifully on its own," says Payne, who has amassed a 100-bottle list. Among his favorite styles is namazake — unpasteurized "living" sakes teeming with enzymes and released shortly after the autumn rice harvest. Essentially the Beaujolais Nouveau of the rice patties, most namazake are characterized by a fruity nose and flowery flavors — a great match, he says, for grilled veggies or fatty fish.

As the sake market grows, major Japanese producers are setting up shop in the United States, like Takara Sake USA in Berkeley, where five-sake tastings go for a bargain rate of $5. But these foreign-based giants are responsible for what many enthusiasts consider less than excellent products, and nearly all the fine, small-batch, handcrafted sakes are Japanese. At True Sake, every single bottle is from the islands. Nombe carries just one American sake — Takara's Organic Namazake. At Ozumo, an American sake appears only occasionally on the 90-bottle list. And at Corkage, all but one or two of the 150 are from Japan.

Meanwhile, the hot sake fashion persists. In some cases, it's the appropriate way, as with the strongly flavored cedar-aged taruzake. But should you ask Payne to heat a glass of an expensive daiginjo — the very finest of grades — or a delicate namazake, he may try and talk you out of it. That failing, he'll bite his lip and do the deed; just know that it tears him up inside.

"It's like throwing a nice Beaujolais Nouveau or Fumé Blanc in the microwave and nuking it for two minutes," he says. "It's sad."

 
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