Saturday, September 30, 2006

San Francisco Saké Vacation, Part 1

I love San Francisco. I lived there for a year and was sad to leave and I'm very happy any time I get to visit. So, when I heard that on October 1st, True Sake would be celebrating Nihonshu no Hi (Saké Day), I bought a ticket and booked my flight. My plan was to stay for a few days and try some new saké every day.

On Friday, my first day in town, I managed to try five different sakés. Really, I was on a mission during this trip and I wasn't going to let silly thoughts such as, "should I really be drinking this early in the day??" slow me down.

The House
The House is in a nice little space right at the edge of Chinatown and North Beach. They offer only one saké by the glass, but it's a good one. I've had enough saké now (but I'm still unfamiliar enough with Japanese) that I am having a pretty difficult time keeping saké names straight. I didn't recognise Meibo "Yowanotsuki" junmai ginjo, which is also known as "Midnight Moon." When I got back to my computer and put two and two together I was excited because I knew that I had a bottle at home in my refrigerator. Something to look forward to! I was happy to make the discovery because I really like this saké. The aroma is pleasant with a bit of floral, the taste was clean with prominent apple throughout and a tart finish. It seems to be a good choice to match with a variety of foods, therefore not a bad choice for a restaurant to offer if they are only going to offer one by the glass. I had the white shrimp and Chinese chive dumplings which came with a tart, tangy sauce and the deep fried salmon roll with Chinese hot mustard. The House also offered a 750 ml bottle of San Pellagrino for $4.00 which I could hardly believe. Most places charge $4.00 for the little bottles.

Meibo junmai ginjo
Rice: Yamadanishiki polished to 50%
SMV +2
Alcohol 15.8%
Acidity 1.5
Amino Acid: 1.2

Later that night, I had a wonderful meal at Ozumo. This evening truly brought home to me the difference between "drinking" saké and "tasting" saké. At the beginning of the meal I wrote in my notebook: "Wakatake Daiginjo Onikoroshi (Demon Slayer) 'beautifully sound, round and alluring saké with a silky texture and slight sweetness stemming...'" The quote is from the menu and I didn't even finish writing the quote and that was it for the night. I was there with an old friend and the saké was flowing and, really, taking notes or even thinking logically about aromas and tastes was far from my mind. Well, I don't regret it. I can sort of recreate the evening from the itemized check: butternut squash miso soup, miso soup, bluefin sashimi, hamachi sashimi, spider roll, ikura sushi, Voss sparkling water, 1 glass Wakatake daiginjo, 1 glass Kamoizumi daiginjo, 1 glass Dewa 33, 1 glass Dewazakura Oka.

Dewa 33 & Dewazakura Oka specifics (also see True Sake's newsletter of April '06 for a good writeup of both):

Dewa 33
Polishing rate 50%
SMV +4
Alcohol 15.8%
Acidity 1.4

Dewazakura Oka "Cherry Bouquet"
Polishing rate 50%
SMV +5
Alcohol 15.5%
Acidity 1.2

Wakatake daiginjo (I later realized that this saké was recommended by one of my tablemates at Sake Day as his anytime saké and a brief search of the internet for other people's opinions shows that many others agree)
Polishing rate ?
SMV +/-0
Acidity 1.4

Kamoizumi daiginjo
Polishing rate ?
SMV 1.5
Acidity 1.2

Thursday, September 14, 2006


Mask hung on ceiling

A huge thanks to Tim at for his recommendation of the extraordinary Sakagura! I had one night in New York last week and I wanted to make the most of it. Sakagura delivered more than I expected. The saké menu is so large, it is truly overwhelming. I decided right away to put myself in our server's hands and I wasn't disappointed. This man was very knowledgeable and willing to spend time helping me find just the thing that I would love (unfortunately, I didn't get his name). When I let him know that I was open to his suggestions, he recommended that I start with a Junmai Daiginjo and I agreed. He asked me if I liked dry or sweet saké and I asked for something slightly dry. He brought 2 bottles to the table for me to taste, Daiten Shiragiku and Nanbu Bijin. I might have liked the Nanbu Bijin better, but I was intrigued by the extreme strawberry aroma of the Daiten Shiragiku ($15/glass). It was served in a stemless glass that was the same shape as my Reidel sake glasses, only a bit smaller. The taste was sweet and smooth with a bit of fruit.

Next, we decided that I should move on to a Junmai Ginjo. The server again brought two bottles to the table and I choose Urakasumi Zen [SMV +1; Polishing rate 50%; alcohol 15-15.9%; acidity 1.3; amino acids 1.3; rice Toyonishiki]. ($17/glass). This was delicious, but it was served just as the Tori Karaage (deep fried chicken chunks marinated in saké and ginger infused soy sauce) arrived at the table. I think the saké was a little too subtle to stand up the chicken. Rob asked the server if there was significance to the use of different glasses the saké was served in. Yes! said the server. The daiginjo would have a somewhat more subtle fragrance and the glass was designed to concentrate the fragrance.

The server asked if I wanted to try a third saké - why, yes! Usually I'm not a heavy drinker, but I had decided that I was going to try as many sakés as I reasonably could. Server said maybe I should consider something a bit more unique. He suggested a yamahi (see John Gauntner's site for a good explanation of the process for making yamahai saké). I choose Kikuhime [SMV +1, acidity 1.8] ($9/glass). This had the bold, savory, ricey aroma which I love. A rich, yummy saké.

I decided that I was going to finish the meal with an aged saké. The aged sakés were offered by the bottle, carafe, glass and tasting. We ordered a tasting of the Daruma Masamune (a blend of 1972, '82, '84, and '89 pure rice sakés at $17/tasting) and a glass of Hanahato (aged 8 years for $8/glass). Both sakés were a striking amber color. The Daruma Masamune was described on the menu as "dramatic" and Rob called it "challenging." I agreed with him, which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. It was full-bodied and a bit sweet. The Hanahato (SMV-44, polishing rate 65%, acidity 3.5) was strong and complex with a slightly sweeter aroma and taste than the Daruma Masamune. The aged sakés were a great way to end a fabulous meal.

On top of the mind-blowing saké menu, Sakagura offers some very tasty food options. The menu featured mostly Izakaya-style snacks or small plates. Besides the tori karaage, we had gindara yuan yak (grilled cod), toro sashimi (the most delicious thing we ate), agedashi tofu, goma ae (extraordinary spinach salad in sesame dressing), yuba shumai, maguro tartare with caviar, and the dessert for 2 which comprised of pineapple sorbet, a chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce and vanilla ice cream (served on a plate with 2 other treats which I can't remember), chocolate chip cookies and Sakagura's signature green tea truffles (yum!). It sounds like a decadent meal, and it was in a way, but one of the things that I love about Japanese food is that I never seem to feel overfull afterwards. I bought two boxes of black sesame shochu truffles to go, one for Mayu, who was watching our house, and one for me. Wow! They were so strong - I ate two of them in the car while I was driving and I was worried that I might be pulled over for DUI. Delicious!

This was one of the most fun evenings that I've had dining out, certainly the most fun since I discovered saké. Sakagura is saké heaven. I can't wait to go back - our next business trip to NYC isn't till next April - maybe I will have to take a couple vacation days!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Full moon viewing with Root of Innocence

Usually I'm not aware of the phases of the moon, but I now realize that a full moon is an excellent excuse for moon viewing and saké drinking! For the last full moon (September 7th) Rob and I opened a bottle of Mukune, "Root of Innocence." So delicious! First thing I noticed in the aroma was a bit of fruit and butterscotch. The taste was full with a huge flavor of butterscotch and some mellon at the end. I loved this saké (even though, along with the moon, it inspired some very bad poetry) .

SMV 55%
Polishing rate +2
Acidity 1.8
Alcohol 16%


Saturday, September 02, 2006

A lucky find in South Bend

We checked into our hotel late on a Sunday night in South Bend, Indiana, and were told that we would be lucky if the Applebees was open - apparently, most places close early here. Imagine how happy we were to find Japanese steakhouse Mikado on our drive to Applebees. Well, I don't know...anything is better than Applebees...we were excited.

The menu listed one saké: "hotsaké" for $4.50. I ordered a beer. But, I noticed what looked like saké bottles lined up on the unmanned sushi bar, so I got up to see what they had and found that they had a bottle of Ozeki dry saké. You must understand, this was 9:00 on Sunday night in South Bend, Indiana. This was a hugely happy discovery for me.

Actually, I didn't really have any complaints. The food was good. We ordered age dashi tofu (my favorite), gyoza, and I had the "tempura deluxe" which came with miso soup, salad, and (strangely) a bowl of fried rice. The tempura was good, crisp and light with shrimp, sweet potatoes, green beans, mushrooms and onions presented on a cute (although plastic) sushi boat. Ozeki dry saké seemed to compliment this "late-night" meal just fine.

SMV: +8
acidity: 1.3
alcohol: 14.5%

402 Dixieway N.
South Bend, IN 46637

Saké in Chicago: Meiji

We were headed to Chicago for a book fair and, of course, I wanted to find a fun place to drink saké. I wrote to the Chicago Chowhounds board and someone enthusiastically recommended Meiji.

I went there with three friends, one a fellow saké drinker. We ordered by the glass because we wanted to taste as many sakés as possible. I happen to like slightly sweeter sakés and my friend Al prefers them more dry and the waiter gave reasonable recommendations based on this.

First I tried the Karen "Coy" junmai ($12/glass). This was actually way too sweet for me. I haven't found the SMV on this, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was -60. Still, I would love to get my hands on the label. It's so pretty: as Tim at says, "the über-pink bottle perfectly captures the taste." He awards it his Golden Masu for "Biggest Barbie Wannabe" and I couldn't agree more. [Update! This just in: I happily found the September issue of True Sake's newsletter in my inbox today and found a nice review of Karen Coy by guest reviewer Mark Bright. His review along with True Sake's tasting notes actually sound so tempting, I now want to give this saké a second chance! Also, nb: SMV -23, acidity 2.9, alcohol 10%.]

Al ordered the Masumi junmai ($8/glass) and this was the hands down favorite of the night. With an SMV of +3 it was dry, but not too dry for my taste. I wish that I could do it justice with a description, but, unfortunately, I only got a sip of it.

Next I had the Umenishiki Junmai Ginjo ($11/glass). John Gauntner discussed the brewery in his July '06 newsletter and said: "Umenishiki has a lot of diversity across its products, but the one thing that they all share is clean, focused flavors that almost radiate quality...The junmai ginjo is clean, bright and sharp with a cleansing acidity melon and citrus flavors and aromas." This was my second favorite of the evening.

The final saké that we tried was Dewazakura "Oka" Junmai Ginjo ($10/glass). This was also a popular choice. In fact, I was surprised by how much I liked Al's drier sakés. I guess I am still learning my own taste!
*Grade: Ginjyoshu(50%), Nihonshu-do: +5, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Miyama-Nishiki,Yukigesyo, Yeast: Ogawa, Alcohol: 15.5%.

By the way, the food at Meiji was delicious. We had a friend along who absolutely refuses to eat raw fish and even she managed to find some things she found yummy, including chicken skewers with spicy sweet miso, sweet and sour plum and teriyaki sauce and the Asparagus Ribeye Roll with enoki mushrooms and teriyaki glaze. I highly recommend the Yuri roll and all agreed the nigiri was fresh and tasty.