Sake Challenge - Taking Sake Into The West or East
I am on a spiritual sake quest that will finally put a nail in the coffin of "sake can only be consumed at a sushi restaurant" mantra. Wake up people! Food and sake go together - always have and always will. If it has a tail, roots, feathers, leaves or a damn beak sake will go with it - anytime and any place. And that is my quest - the place or origin of the cuisine does not matter. It can be Spanish, Italian, Brazilian or ughhhh British chow and sake will walk the walk. Japan has chickens! Japan has salad! Japan has beef! Japan has spicy and savory dishes! Japan has sweet and salty fare, so why not think about having sake with these "tones" from other countries? The Sake Challenge is my way for you great consumers to see outside of the sushi paradigm, and to achieve this "new view on brew" I will usually select two different sake styles and price-points and bring them to a non-Japanese restaurant with a celebrity, sake-sleuth or hell even a friend in tow. (Please see the August'07 Newsletter for Sake Vs. New Orleans fare - yes Cajun flavors galore - or Sake vs. Italian Jan'08 Newsletter - Sake vs. Peruvian March'08 Newsletter)
This month's Sake Challenge pits two brews - Hiraizumi Yamahai Junmai and Gokyo Junmai - against Espetus Churrascaria (Authentic Brazilian Steakhouse) http://www.espetus.com (A great website - check it out!) My fellow guinea pig ripe for the slaughter is none other than Kazu Yamazaki (YM) from Japan Prestige Sake International who imports more sake into the US than any other concern. Of course I brought two of Kazu's sakes!
The great thing about this restaurant is that they bring you meat to your table just like dim sum in a Chinese restaurant! The staff walks around with large skewers loaded with all sorts of grilled meats from beef to shrimp and from chicken hearts to pineapple. You raise your hand when you see something that you like. As I do not eat red meat Kazu was in charge of those pairings, a job he relished! He almost ate the entire menu offering!
I selected these two brews because I felt that they would go well with meat! The Hiraizumi is on the dry rich side and the Gokyo is on the earthy savory side. The bottles started chilled and we left them on the table and they gradually went to room temperature. For the price savvy the Hiraizumi is $34 and the Gokyo is $24.
Sake vs. Brazilian Steak House (Espetus Churrascaria)
Before I go into the course by course blow by blow I wanted to encourage you to visit the website for photos of each dish as I describe the pairing - please visit www.espetus.com then click on "Menu" and when there click on "Meat Selections" for an amazing slide show of the meats. Sadly they are not in the exact order as we tasted them - but hey blame the kitchen!
1ST COURSE: Welcome Starter - Cheese Bread, Fried Polenta, Fried Banana
|Cheese Bread: (Think cheesy fried bread)Hiraizumi - Basically the Yamahai makes the cheese far more pronounced in the flavor - almost makes the flavor sharp! Kazu said "nothing really happened"
Gokyo - This Junmai really neutralizes the cheese flavor and brings out a creaminess. Pretty much makes the dish neutral in scope and feel. Kazu said "the sake cleans off the cheese flavor in my mouth."
BT: Preferred Gokyo for a B
Fried Polenta: Traditional fried grains dish from South America.
Hiraizumi - This brew battles with the polenta to produce an uneven pairing. There is a hint of bitterness and a semi-savory twang, but just doesn't work well together.
Gokyo - Now we are talking! The graininess of the dish turns into a sultry and savory pairing with the Gokyo. There is a great creamy smoothness that does quite nicely in the palate. Kazu said "Sake brings out the sweeter side of the polenta, little like pancake without syrup."
BT: Preferred Gokyo for an A-
Fried Banana: Basically a fried banana.
Hiraizumi - Works well with the richness of the banana. The combination creates a fresh almost "green" flavor that has a cleanliness for all of the banana tones. Kazu said "The sake washes off the oil and leaves the original flavor of the banana."
Gokyo - Firstly the banana is really sweet and the Gokyo goes right up against this sweetness to make almost a third flavor - which is sort of sweet and savory. What is interesting is that the banana pulls out a little fruit in the Gokyo for a nice flavor.
BT: Preferred Gokyo for an A-
FIRST SKEWER: Top Sirloin "Alcatra" (#3 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - As I do not eat red meat this review is all Kazu. He said, " Sake becomes milder and meat becomes milkier and creamier - good pairing - reminds me of a good meat and sake pairing in Japan where the meat becomes nuttier."Gokyo - Kazu said, "It's okay, but not great, but not bad either - the sake stays in the mouth - the meat stays in the mouth - can drink and eat like partners."
BT: Did not taste
SECOND SKEWER: Sirloin Steak "Picanha" (#1 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - Kazu said the meat was dry and, "Sake goes more lactic acid with more dairy qualities - the fat is washed away - basically it neutralizes the fat."Gokyo - Kazu stated, "Nothing! No big flavor. The sake becomes lost with no flavor and goes sort of watery."
BT: Did not taste
THIRD SKEWER: Pork Tenderloin "Lombo de Porco" (#7 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - These cuts were both juicy and dry with a seasoned skin that was salty and semi-spicey. Talk about a welcoming carpet ride in the mouth - good feeling meets good flavor for a nice smooth blending of tones. The pork brings out a creaminess in the Yamahai that almost goes on the lactic acid side, but stays more clean. It flattens the spice of the skin! Kazu said the pairing went in three stages in his mouth.Gokyo - The Gokyo really plays well with the nuttiness of the juice of the pork and creates and overall smokiness to the pairing that is pleasing. Amongst the smokiness there is a hint of fruit which is quite nice but this brings out a little acidic imbalance. This Junmai really jumps with the fat of the pork. Kazu said, "sake makes the pork sweeter."
BT: Preferred the Hiraizumi for a B+
FOURTH SKEWER: Grilled Shrimp "Camarao Assado" (#14 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - The Yamahai gets into a stumbling match with the sweetness of the shrimp - there is an unbalanced overall feeling that has a good start but a hot finish. No dry, not fruity, not even. The heat is a distraction from the pairing. Kazu said that there wasn't a good match.Gokyo - Great pairing! Bingo - the Junmai goes right at the richness of the shrimp and creates a tremendous "even" quality that makes a perfect pairing perfect. A third flavor with hints of citrus is created that borders on "fresh" and semi-fruity. Just a great fresh and clean pairing that pulls lots of rich and sweet elements into an even flow. Kazu stated that "there are smoky and green qualities that are nice - more sweet."
BT: Preferred the Gokyo for an A+
FIFTH SKEWER: Homemade Pork Sausage "Linguica Caseira" (#9 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - The sausages are made with most of the usual suspects - garlic, sweet onion, pepper etc and the Yamahai with its dryness is very effective taking down these flavors and making a smooth and clean delivery. A very nice pairing that has a little spice to it, but has very good balance to stand on. What is appealing is that the dryness of the Hiraizumi is present more in this dish than the others - is it the spice? Kazu said that the Yamahai makes "things become sweeter - the taste of pork becomes lighter with a spicey finish."Gokyo - Ahhh think rich and smoky with a little spice tail! Semi- savory elements bring out the smoky quality of the sausage - very savory actually - not fruity - with hints of richness in an even hand. Kazu said that both the meat and sake become sweeter.
BT: Preferred the Hiraizumi for an A
SIXTH SKEWER: Chicken Hearts "Coracao de Frango" (#12 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - These hearts are done with a lot of garlic and the Hiraizumi goes hot against that with a little sizzle in the delivery. It is a "gripping and loud" pairing but the connection is topical and does not get down below the surface of the flavor of the hearts. There is a subtle nuttiness but the sharpness dictates this pairing. Kazu lamented that the taste became sweeter than the chicken.Gokyo - Now the bottles have come a lot closer to room temperature. Wow! Wow! Wow! 3 wows for this pairing as a "mystical" richness "almost with maple syrup" qualities comes out with the garlic and the heart. The tight and focused flavor of the chicken heart is kept compact with the deep savoriness of the Gokyo. Savory success and "umami" galore! This is by fare my favorite pairing of the evening. Kazu is less impressed and got caught up in the garlic of the hearts.
BT: Preferred the Gokyo for an A+
SEVENTH SKEWER: Chicken Breast Wrapped in Bacon "Peito de Frango com Bacon" (#11 on the menu)
|This was a bad dish as the chicken was so dry and spicey that we both didn't enjoy it at all. So I will just give the grades.BT: Preferred the Hiraizumi for a B
KY: Preferred the Gokyo for a B
EIGHTH SKEWER: Filet Mignon "Filet Mignom" (#4 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - Kazu stated that the combination became "sweet and grainy - tastes dryer and sweeter equally - tastes lighter."Gokyo - Kazu said, " The Gokyo becomes sweeter and the sake washes off the spice of the delicious and juicy piece of beef. The balance of flavors is almost like caramelized."
BT: Did not taste.
NINTH SKEWER: Pork Loin with Parmesan Cheese "Lombo com queijo Parmesao" (#8 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - The Yamahai acts like a neutralizer on this pairing - really good as the oily nature of this juicy dish goes to an almost caramel flavor - and the cheese brings out a richness and a dairy- like quality. A nice fitting pairing. Kazu had problems getting past a spicey finish.Gokyo - Strange as a fruitiness meets the sizzle of the cheese. A very uneven pairing that is more rough than welcoming. Kazu said the pairing made the pork taste sweet that is supported by a dryer finish.
BT: Preferred the Hiraizumi for an A-
TENTH SKEWER: Grilled Pineapple "Abacaxi Assado" (#15 on the menu)
|Hiraizumi - Immediately this pairing goes to a vanilla-like quality with a round and watery finish. It makes the acidic pineapple smooth out a bit. Strange yes, but okay as a pairing. Kazu said that the sake made the pineapple less sweet.Gokyo - The pineapple is served grilled which means warm, mild and sweet and the Gokyo makes the flavors go neutral or even. Not rich, not sweet, but not bad! Kazu said that it is less sweet with a dry finish.
BT: Preferred the Gokyo for a B
So there we have it - the pride of Japan "meats" the pride of Brazil! And look what happened, some seriously delicious pairings. Kazu said it best when he said that even on the pairings that we did not prefer that much, they were never awful. And I guess this is one of sake's great strengths when it comes to food pairings - it has further scope, flexibility and dependability than let's say a grape juice. The starch of the rice dances better in many contexts than a sweet juice, and who would have thunk that polenta - such a staple - would go so well with Gokyo. I mean think of most of the pairings - although Brazilian on that night - how many versions of grilled shrimp, chicken hearts or pork sausage live in this world? And yet these were my favorite pairings for the evening. Sake scored a brilliant gooooooooooaaaaaalllllllll on Brazilian fare!