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Chicago Gourmet Sat Sep 27 2008

Sake for Everyday

dtchicagogourmet.jpgWhen Andrew (chief of Gapers Block clan) managed to secure press passes to the Chiago Gourmet for us, I immediately wanted to cover a seminar on sake. Normally, it would be $60 to attend (on top of the already hefty $150 day pass, I believe), which is a bit out of my budget. I was curious to see how sake is presented and received, given the recent surge of interest in sake in the Untied States. On top of that, as a relative newcomer to the world of sake myself, I was eager to try new varieties and listen to a sake expert describe their aromas and flavors. So I jumped to the opportunity.

After picking up the press pass and walking past a glassed-in seminar room with maybe eight people listening to a suit-and-tied presenter from an exotic winery, I sat down by the grand staircase on the first floor of the Cultural Center. I was a few minutes early. When I was checking the setting of my camera when I noticed a middle-aged, Eastern Asian guy sit next to me. I didn't think much of that; I just thought he was a tired visitor taking a break for a moment.

The man turned out to be the chef Takashi Yagihashi of Takashi, the seminar's presenter. As he walked up to the front of the seminar room, I kicked myself for not looking at him closely enough--I could have talked to him about the Chicago Gourmet and about sake without anyone milling around for their turn to speak to him. There were probably about 30 people in the room for the seminar. Some wore press passes, while others were paying guests (with occasional flashes of ritzy jewelry). It was interesting to see the sake seminar much better attended than the preceding seminar on wine--although, to be fair, there are more than fifteen wine seminars to choose from, whereas on sake there is only one.

Sake Cups and Starbucks
Yagihashi's sake cup collection, along with his Starbucks cup, made an eclectic tableau at the Sake for Everyday seminar.

Yagihashi started with a little biography of himself -- growing up in Mito as a grandson of a sake retailer, moving to the U.S., working his way up in prestigious restaurants, and opening his own in Bucktown -- and moved on to the brewing process of sake. Within a few minutes, everybody was intently listening to his charming and informative talk with occasional self-depricating humor (which reminded me of Japan so much!).

For the tasting part, there was generous pouring of one sake from each of the major sake category. A guy from Yagihashi's distributor joined and gave us a lively commentary on each sake. From the "Junmai" category, which uses rice grains polished at least to the 70% of their original size, we tried "Hitorimusume" from Yamanaka Brewery in the chef's hometown (link in Japanese). To my palate, it tasted a little harsh and alcoholic, although, after listening to Yagihashi describe it as "neutral and good with food," I could see it that way, too.

The next one up was "Kura Shizuku" from the unfiltered sake category. Unfiltered sake, or "Nigori-zake", is characterized by varying degrees of cloudiness. Depending on the amount of sediment left, it ranges from completely opaque, snow white to just the faintest hint of whiteness floating in the clear liquid. "Kura Shizuku" was on the lighter side. This might have been the most delightful of the six sake we tried. With natural carbonation, it was slightly fizzy, leaving a faint, tingling sensation on my tongue. Combined with its fruity, citrusy flavor, the fizziness made it a wonderfully refreshing sake. "I like to serve this one like champagne in my restaurant," said Yagihashi, "and everyone loves it. They can't believe how good it is." I couldn't agree more. This would be the next bottle that we'll be trying at home--maybe as an aperitif, or possibly with a light appetizer, like carpaccio or delicate salad.

Then we moved on to the more "premium" varieties: "Kura Hibiki" from the "Daiginjo" category and "Gekkako" from the "Junmai Daiginjo" category. These two categories are considered more premium because the rice used is more polished to remove the impure taste, and also because the brewing process becomes much more time- and labor-intensive. Compared to the "Junmai" category, sake in these two categories tend to be less acid, less harsh, more fruity and more aromatic. "Kura Hibiki" was fruity (lychee and melon were everyone's consensus), with a very thick mouth feel. "Gekkako," the most "premium" of the six sake we tried this afternoon, had a faint aroma of anise at the beginning. I have to say that this premium sake was my least favorite, oddly enough. The initial anise aroma seemed to quickly give way to an unpleasant bran-y aroma, and the thick mouthfeel was a bit too sticky. I didn't get the "nectarine-like" flavor that the distributor guy mentioned, either. I usually enjoy Junmai Daiginjo's, so it was a bit of a surprise.

By this time, I was starting to feel a little buzzy, even though I wasn't finishing any of the sake. (There was a styrofoam cup in front of everyone, where you could dump the unwanted portion of the tasting pour. I felt horrible doing this, but otherwise I would have been plowed by the second variety.) I enjoyed the rather unique next pour--"Taru" in the "Taru Sake" category. It was aged in a cask made of cedar, which adds an earthy, woody, slightly medicinal flavor of the cedar to the smooth sake. The woody note might go very well with char-broiled fish.

To conclude the tasting, we had "Kiuchi Yuzu Wine," which isn't really sake. It's a wine made with yuzu, a Japanese citrus with a uniquely complex flavor. A remark by the distributor guy summed it all up: "This isn't supposed to be a serious, pretentious thing. It's a whimsical, fun wine--just look at the label; they can't be serious, right?" The label on the slim, blue bottle bears a cartoon of a yuzu fruit in a red T-shirt, holding a glass of yuzu wine and proclaiming "I'm Japanese citrus." Apparently this one got on the tasting list because Yagihashi wanted to include something sweet and drinkable--like riesling--for those new to the subtle flavors of sake. (Plus the wine is made by a traditional sake maker.) I wasn't too impressed by the yuzu wine; it seemed just too sweet.

There were quite a few people in the seminar room who were already familiar with sake. They asked in-depth questions like the type of rice used for each brew and the correct temperatures to serve a particular variety, while those new to sake tried to find a favorite. Yagihashi's presentation seemed to cover a wide ground, satisfying both crowds. I was glad that he didn't show up in a suit and a tie, like the speaker for the preceding wine seminar did. It would have elevated the sake into the realm of the extraordinary. With wrinkly shirt tail hanging over his jeans, a suggestion to go ahead and use the microwave to warm up your sake, and a relaxed, personable smile, Yagihashi seemed a perfect ambassador for the concept of "sake for everyday."

Takashi specializes in sake from breweries around Yagihashi's hometown of Mito (which happens to be my grandmother's hometown, too). "When I was at the giant restaurant, Okada, in Vegas, we had over 200 different sake. But that's not what I want to do," he said. "I want to have sake that I know are good, and that come from breweries that I personally know."

 
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