Sake Challenge - Sake vs. "American" Cuisine | True Sake
June 2009

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. "American" Cuisine

Posted by admin in 2009, June, Newsletter, Sake Challenge

sake challenge june 2009I 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. Read about past challenges:

When reviewing restaurants and their specific cuisines paired with sake I use the following criteria:

  • Works World Class (WWC)
  • Works Well (WW)
  • Works (W)
  • Does Not Work (DNW)

This criterion is more true to the mission of bringing a beverage to a restaurant not knowing what you will pair with. The point is to make the general pairings "work." Rare is the day that you bring a specific wine or sake to pair with a specific dish - we look for generalities and the entire eating/drinking experience. Think of fishing with a net as opposed to a hook and line - a pairing is supposed to reach out and catch more flavors as opposed to just hitting one match.

This month the Sake Challenge went to Range ( to experience "American" cuisine. Using my handy dandy "Urban Spoon" shake selector on my iPhone - I was trying to find restaurants that claimed "American" fare as opposed to "California" cuisine. Basically I was looking for solid flavors and expressions that harkened back to my meat loaf days of long ago. Hell - if I'm throwing sake at Indian food might as well get a foothold a little closer to home! The menu - as you can see on-line - was not exactly mac and cheese and pot roast! But it did have some very "base" elements that screamed for sake.

My partner and fellow sake demystifier for this occasion was none other than Hiromi Luchi, who just so happens to import both of the above mentioned sakes. Hiromi has been a stalwart on the sake scene for over 20 years, and her selection of sakes for the JCTO portfolio is top notch. She is perhaps the most seasoned female in the US sake scene, and I am fortunate to consider her a friend.

PLEASE NOTE - What happened on this evening is the stuff that keeps bringing me back to sake. My perceptions once again were not only shattered but obliterated, and Hiromi pretty much agreed. Using my criteria I had to pick a cheaper brew and a little more expensive brew - the Minowamon is one of the top Junmai Daiginjos in the game, and as much as I like the Mizunoshirabe as a drinking sake, I never dreamed that it would stand up to some larger flavors. But alas - the wonders of sake screamed out loud and the little engine-that-could-Ginjo was the star of this month's Sake Challenge.

The two brews were:

  1. Mizunoshirabe Ginjo from Kyoto
    SMV: +5 Acidity: 1.2
  2. Daichishi "Minowamon" Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo from Fukushima
    SMV: +1 Acidity: 1.4

We served both brews chilled to begin with - had in a cold pack. Then let them come into room temperature later. We also used white wine glasses.

Let The Games Begin:

1st Course: Chicken liver mousse with watercress salad and toast.

Mizunoshirabe - The creaminess of the mousse pulled an even more creamy quality out of the Ginjo - made for a nice soft feeling play. The sake provided a good wash taking the flavors and depositing them in the back of the palate - but there was a hint of a backwash as the liver-ness comes back in a later aftertaste. Hiromi was surprised that the Ginjo cleaned the palate so well.
• BT - W
• HU - WW

Minowamon - The Daiginjo really complemented the richness of the mousse by highlighting the "umami" factor. Surprisingly the watercress also danced well with the Daiginjo providing a very solid balance in each paired sip. Just a very good flavor and feeling pairing.
• BT - WW
• HU - WW

2nd Course: Spinach puree with poached egg in herb butter.

Mizunoshirabe - Bingo! An amazing pairing. One of those "how in the world?" sake pairings - Egg? Herb butter? And spinach? Come on! But the Ginjo pounced on this dish with an amazing balance and dexterity. Again - a creative creaminess came out of the Ginjo that was gentle, soft and even with the smooth "wacky" flavors. This brew was a blanket of stability that made each flavor taste better and increased the feeling of dish by providing a stellar wash. A perfect dance partner.
• BT - WWC
• KY - WWC

Minowamon - The Daiginjo became far more sweet with this pairing, and this clashed with the flavors of the dish. Basically the sake changed the flavor and meaning of the egg and spinach combo, despite highlighting the softness and easiness of each mouthful. The tail was also a little too pronounced with this pairing.
• BT - W
• HU - W

3rd Course: Goat cheese and sorrel stuffed pasta with lime butter and chives

Mizunoshirabe - The dish came heavy in the lime butter - made the flavors pop and were far more acidic than buttery, thus the Ginjo had to work extra hard to capture the flavor match. It did as well as a booze could. It did not enhance nor conflict with the flavors, just acted as a pure facilitator of moving the dish across the palate. Hiromi thought that the Ginjo mellowed the Goat Cheese.
• BT - W
• HU - W

Minowamon - The Daiginjo got a little hot with the lime essences, which was a bummer because individually it really went well with the Goat Cheese. A good lactic-acid creamy pairing. It wasn't a distraction but the complexity of the smoothness of the cheese and the citric acid took the feet out from under the Daiginjo. Hiromi liked the cheese to sake play a lot!
• BT - W
• HU - WW

4th Course: Roasted chicken with arugula pancetta and walnut bread salad.

Mizunoshirabe - This salty and savory dish brought out a vanilla like creaminess in the sake that enhanced the feeling and the flavor of the chicken. A very nice soft and savory play that accentuated the saltiness without being too much. A really nice compliment! Hiromi wasn't as impressed as the chicken was a bit dry and this clashed with her elements.
• BT - WW
• HU - DNW

Minowamon - I thought that Daiginjo acted like a big red wine that literally pushed the whole flavor experience through the palate like a bulldozer rather than a gentle ride together. The flavors all became deeper and more forceful - large and hearty - with a little acidic heat. It wasn't bad, but could have been a better hand-in- hand walk. Hiromi was still caught up on the chicken
• BT - W
• KY - DNW

5th Course: Erbette chard and mushroom dumpling and artichokes with a fava bean puree Parmesan broth and pine nuts.

Mizunoshirabe - The immediate flavor of butter and mushroom did not jive well with the Ginjo. By this point the sakes were far closer to room temperature so maybe this had a bearing. Funny enough the dryness of the sake came forth for the first time during this pairing on this dish. The balance was not there and the flavors conflicted
• BT - DNW
• HU - W

Minowamon - The rich Daiginjo fared better with the rich buttery slide for a solid and savory pairing. The creaminess and lactic push of the sake brought forth a savory balance that was deep and plump.
• BT - W
• HU - W


Firstly the "Americana" qualities that I was looking for were not on the menu that evening. So visions of pot pie and pork chops never materialized, but when in Rome TX, eat like a Roman. So we did with two really great sakes. I am still blown away by how well the $22 Ginjo from Kyoto did compared to the $80 legendary Kimoto Junmai Daiginjo. The spinach and egg pairing will go down in history as one of those "truly amazing" pairings that folks won't believe. But it did! Both sakes did alright - there was not too much conflict or disruptiveness, and in its entirety the booze to food pairings were pretty good partners. Who would have thunk it! Does sake go with all "American" fare? Well we will just have to keep on trying, but in the mean time realize that sake did as well or better than a cab or a sauv blanc in that setting - and that is all that I am trying to get at!

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