The topic is sake
The guest on WLRN’s Food News & Views, with Linda Gassenheimer, Joe Cooper and me, was Thomas Buckley, executive chef for Nobu Matsuhisa’s restaurant in Miami Beach. Well, with Japanese food goes sake.
So I’m reprising here two sake stories I wrote in 2001.
Oh, and you can hear the radio show by clicking on the podcast icon at the left of this page.
Sake Growing Fast in America (story from 2001)
If you've had sake, it was probably served hot in a tiny ceramic cup with your favorite sushi.
That's about to change. Sake is going upscale. Drop into any Asian restaurant on the West Coast or in Manhattan, and you're likely to be handed not just a menu but a sake list with two dozen premium choices, from $25 to $175 a bottle. And here's the shocker: The sake will be served cold. In a wine glass. Paired with fish, poultry or even pork - not sushi.
Sake is soaring, with Americans drinking twice as much today as in 1990, reaching $180 million in sales. Seven sake breweries have sprung up from California to Washington, adding to the 250 brands imported from Japan.
In San Francisco, a third of the diners at Ace Wasabi's Rock-n-Roll Sushi restaurant have sake with their meals. In Manhattan, master sommelier Roger Dagon has studied up and become a sake master as well, offering a wide range of sakes at his Chanterelle restaurant.
Almost overnight, South Florida is catching up with the trend, with half a dozen Asian restaurants just opened or about to, serving six to 38 sakes each. At Roy Yamaguchi's in Boca Raton (and next year in Coral Gables), the spicy miso-marinated Chilean whitefish is paired with a sweet sake designed by the chef himself and poetically named "Snow."
At Nobu, in South Beach's ultra-upscale Shore Club, you can pair the black grouper sashimi dish Tiradito Nobu Style with an extra-dry premium sake called "Devil Killer." (At the bar, you can order a "Saketini" - a vodka martini in which the vermouth is replaced with sake, the olive with a spear of cucumber.)
Why sake? It's a logical step. Having become more sophisticated about wine, beer and cocktails, Americans are looking for the next new thing. And pricey restaurants feel compelled to provide it. (Ironically, sake consumption in Japan declined 30 percent in the 1990s as Japanese turned to wine and other Western beverages.)
"There's a certain mystique to sake, a mystique that wine had years ago when I first started, " says Yamaguchi, whose Boca restaurant is his 24th.
"A lot of Americans know very little about sake, " says Marco Perry, manager of Café Sambal in the Mandarin Oriental in downtown Miami. "I'll be training my wait staff to help them learn."
"Sake is what Nobu does, " says Jim Samuels, manager of The Shore Club, home to Japanese-born chef Nobu Matsuhisa's latest restaurant.
It's also part of the hotel's drive for five-star, five-diamond status. "It provides an unbelievable product and service that people will pay a little more for, " Samuels adds.
There's only one problem: A real, Japanese sake might have a dozen subtle scents and flavors, but the one that sometimes strikes the beginning taster is a faint sense of - how to put it delicately? - a leafy glade, a forest floor, even a hint of freshly turned earth.
"It's a wonderful aroma if you're used to it, but a lot of Americans have trouble with it, " says Griffith Frost, an Oregon sake producer. "Sometimes they take that first sip and say, 'Yuck.' "
Veteran sake sippers scoff: "One man's earthy is another man's mellow, " says John Gauntner, an American living in Japan who has achieved the rare feat of becoming a sake maker there.
In Japan, he says, sake is described less in terms of flavor than in the presence or absence of such qualities as fragrance, impact, sweetness, acidity and complexity. In his book, The Saké Companion (Running Press, $11.95), Gauntner describes sake's essential flavor using the Japanese concept of "pin, " which he defines as "that certain something, that je ne sais quoi which is not a question of sweet or dry or other flavor elements but of a harmonious clarity of taste born of perfection of balance."
While American tasters struggle to grasp such subtleties, domestic producers are charging ahead with sakes they believe will appeal to untrained taste buds. At Griffith Frost's "sakerie" in Forest Grove, Ore., he uses a special yeast to hold down earthiness and emphasize the fruity qualities more familiar to wine aficionados. He's even infusing some of his sakes with raspberries, citrus, and hazelnuts - a practice that a sake master in Japan would view with the disdain an American winemaker would reserve for a wine cooler.
It's a learning process, Frost says: "The average sake drinker takes about a year to graduate from the infused ones to the more classical varieties."
In turning now to sake, American's wine aficionados are having to learn some new tricks, to cast off some old preconceptions. For example:
* Premium sake is drunk cool, not hot. In Japan, serving sake hot became popular during and after World War II, to cover the flaws of sakes made in an era of rice shortages. Today, only cheaper sakes are drunk at 105 to 110 degrees. Top quality sakes are chilled to about 57 degrees - just slightly warmer than white wines.
* Premium sake in America is often served in wine glasses instead of the traditional wooden boxes or ceramic cups. It allows for the swirling and sniffing that American wine lovers are used to. In Japan, warm sake is served in ceramic cups, cool sake in small glasses that are set into the wooden boxes for tradition's sake, Gauntner says.
* Sake is 13 to 17 percent alcohol, compared to 12 percent for wine, so imbibers might want to have a designated rickshaw driver available.
* Sushi is not the best food match for premium sake. Purists argue that, since both sake and sushi are made of rice, the two are redundant, even conflicting. Sake, in its various styles, flavors and levels of sweetness, today is paired with a wide range of dishes, from lobster to marinated pork.
* Sake is beer, not wine, because it is brewed from rice, a vegetable, not grapes, which are fruit. But it's drunk like wine.
* Sake has no tannins, no preservatives, no sulfites and only one-third the acid of wines, leading proponents to claim there's no such thing as a sake hangover (an assertion stoutly disputed by those who admit to having overindulged).
* Sake doesn't improve with age; in fact, it turns stale and yellow. So most sakes should be drunk within 12 to 18 months of being made, and within a couple of days of being opened, even if refrigerated. The exception: taru sake, aged in cedar casks, which turns mellow and smoky and is prized by connoisseurs.
Yamaguchi and Frost have teamed up at Frost's Oregon brewery to create a new, ultra-premium American line called "Y Sake, " sold in Yamaguchi's restaurants, other top eateries and, soon, retail stores. These are America's first daiginjo sakes, meaning they are made of rice milled down to less than 50 percent of its original size, leaving only the starchy core that produces the best sake.
These, too, are specially brewed for more fruit, less earth, to please the American palate. They retail for $30 a bottle.
As Americans take more and more to sake, they may even seek to learn about Japanese sake-drinking etiquette. There, everyday sake is still drunk warm, in ceramic cups made tiny to facilitate the ice-breaking social custom of o-shaku - of making sure one never fills one's own glass, but strives to make sure his guests' glasses are never empty.
On formal occasions, sake is poured for guests in order of their social precedence. To Americans, it sounds like a social minefield: If you're drinking with your father and your father-in-law, whose glass do you pour first?
Not to worry, says Gauntner: "True, you do not pour your own first in formal settings. But almost all situations mellow out after a few drinks. Social precedence is important, as is order, but it's nothing for a nonexpert to get hung up about.
"If you were drinking with your father and father-in-law in a formal situation, the latter would get it first, I think. But in practice they would all fight to pour for each other. It would be a mellow, everyday thing for them, intended to be fun.
"Don't dwell on this too much."Roy Yamaguchi's Blackened Ahi with Soy-Mustard Sauce
Spice sprouts are occasionally available in Asian markets. You may substitute watercress sprigs. Dish is pictured below, with tuna left whole. Soy-Mustard Sauce: 1/4 cup dry mustard 2 tablespoons hot water 2 tablespoons unseasoned rice wine vinegar 1/4 cup soy sauce Beurre Blanc (White Butter Sauce): 1/2 cup white wine 2 teaspoons white wine vinegar 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice 1 tablespoon minced shallot 2 tablespoons heavy cream 1/2 cup unsalted butter, chopped 1/4 teaspoon salt Freshly ground white pepper to taste Blackening Spice: 11/2 tablespoons paprika 1/2 tablespoon cayenne powder 1/2 tablespoon red chili powder 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper 1/2 tablespoon ground sandalwood (optional) Garnish: 2 or 3 tablespoons red pickled ginger 1/2 teaspoon black sesame seeds 1 ounce Japanese spice sprouts or sunflower sprouts (top 2 inches only) 1 tablespoon seeded and diced yellow bell pepper 1 tablespoon matchstick-size cucumber slices To finish:
1 ahi tuna fillet, about 2 inches thick and 5 inches long (about 8 ounces)
Make Soy-Mustard Sauce: Combine the mustard powder and hot water to form a paste. Let sit for a few minutes to allow the flavor to develop. Add the vinegar and soy sauce, mix together and strain through a fine sieve. Chill in the refrigerator.
Make Beurre Blanc: Combine the wine, wine vinegar, lemon juice and shallot in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until it becomes syrupy. Add the cream and reduce by half. Turn the heat to low and gradually add the butter, stirring slowly (do not whisk) until it is all incorporated. Be careful not to let the mixture boil. Season with salt and pepper and strain through a fine sieve. Transfer to a double boiler and keep warm.
Prepare fish: Mix blackening spices on a plate and dredge the ahi on all sides. Heat a lightly oiled cast-iron skillet and sear the ahi over high heat to the desired doneness (about 15 seconds per side for rare to 1 minute per side for medium-rare). Cut into 16 thin slices.
To finish: For each serving, arrange 4 slices of the ahi in a pinwheel or cross shape on the plate. Ladle a little of the soy-mustard sauce in two opposing quadrants between the tuna and ladle the beurre blanc in the other two quadrants. To garnish, put a small mound of the red pickled ginger on the beurre blanc and sprinkle sesame seeds over the Soy-Mustard Sauce. Arrange sprouts, bell pepper and cucumber at center of the pinwheel. Makes 4 servings. Per serving: 392 calories (69 percent from fat), 31 g fat (17 saturated), 102 cholesterol, 18 g protein, 9 g carbohydrates, trace fiber, 1,193 mg sodium.