September 19, 2014

Sake's Turn to Sashay Down the Runway

If last week was fashion week, this week it was sake’s turn to sashay down the figurative runway, at the annual Joy of Sake celebration held last night at Chelsea’s Altman Building.

Shuji Abe, of Kokusai Sake Kai, left, and Yasuyuki Yoshida
of Tedorigawa Masamune brewery welcome guests.

About 600 guests ogled and tasted an impressive 370 sakes from 159 breweries throughout Japan. The event, now in its 11th year, was inspired by the Honolulu-based Kokusai Sake Kai (International Sake Group) which in 2001 launched an informal annual sake appraisal to help promote Japanese sakes to the West. (Judges don’t rank the sakes, but offer gold stars to the ones they like best, and silver to the next highest rated sakes.) From there, it was a natural step to take the sakes they had judged on the road. This year’s road trip started in Hawaii in July and from New York will travel to Tokyo, giving over 3,000 people the chance to taste the best sakes from Japan, some of them not available outside their mother country.

Haneya Daiginjo

The sakes set out at the Joy of Sake included aromatic, gold-starred daiginjos such as the Kariho Kaei from Akita Seishu Brewery,  and the Haneya Daiginjo from Toyama’s Fumigiku brewery 

As the doors opened to guests, Chris Johnson, sake consultant and self-styled “sake ninja” who created the sake list at branches of the recently opened Cherry in Chelsea and Williamsburg, gave a few words of advice. Noting that many would want to crowed the tables bearing the most expensive daiginjo bottles, ranked A and B according to the percentage of the rice kernel that remains after polishing (the more polished the higher the grade), he suggested that the tables bearing the ginjo and junmai styles should be mined for their many gems as well.  As Chris Pearce, the organizer of The Joy of Sake, noted, "Many newcomers to sake go for the daiginjos and ginjos first because of their fruity aroma." They can understand them as they would wine, while the junmais, which Pearce said are often more about texture and crispness, can be harder to relate to. "Over time though," he added, "many people gravitate to junmai labels."

Not all premium sake needs to be served cold:
this Toyo no Aki Junmai dry sake benefits
from a little warming up.

Pearce and many of the sake makers were on hand for another blow-out sake event, held the night before at chef-owner Marco Moreira’s Union Square-area restaurant Toqueville. There, guests dined on a ten-course menu with sake pairings including a pristinely fresh series of nigiri sushi by chef Masato Shimizu. The most unusual pairing was a rich aged sake from 1997, Kamoizumi “Sachi,” known as a koshu or “old sake.”

Tasting notes at the Toqueville sake dinner.
(Photo courtesy of One Five Hospitality)
Food featured in a fine way at the Joy of Sake event as well. Since sake is best tasted along with some delicious bites, cooks from 14 New York City restaurants were on hand to supply them En Japanese Brasserie provided the perfect foil to the supremely balanced sakes with a delicious Italian black truffle chawanmushi (steamed egg custard), while Sun Noodle Ramen Lab went for a more assertive izakaya-style chilled tantan ramen with spicy pork and sesame sauce, ideal with the junmai sakes.

En Japanese Brasserie's black truffle chawanmushi.

Wylie Dufresne, chef of wd~50, put the finishing touches on his sunflower miso, shiitake, daikon and tonburi tasting, reliably bringing the most exotic ingredient to the party. The tonburi,  also known as firebush or common red sage, has seeds that look and crunch like caviar but taste a little like artichoke.  A big fan of sake, Dufresne said, “it goes well with food at both restaurants (wd~50 and Alder) because they’re brighter and not super-heavy.” Sakes, in fact, he added, are a lot like his own food:  “clean, well-balanced and with a good use of acidity.”