Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Southern Italian (Riding the A16) | True Sake
January 2011

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Southern Italian (Riding the A16)

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, January, Newsletter, Sake Challenge
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. 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's Challenge features three - count them three - different sakes! Why? Because we were taking sake to the complex flavors found on the A16 in Southern Italy. First off, if you have never been to A16 (a16sf.com) you should! What a great restaurant with tremendous people manning the shop. Basically I thought it was time to get sake back in the arena of pizza, but what a menu! We had too many choices, and could only do our best. Since I was dining with Kazu Yamazaki - yet again - I decided to take two of the sakes that he imports. But Kazu wanted to try the newly made and imported nigori from Wakatake Onigoroshi - their first nigori - so we did. Herewith are the three sakes and the results of a really classy Sake Challenge.
  1. Gokyo "Tanuki" Junmai NEW
  2. Wakatake Onigoroshi Junmai Nigori NEW
  3. Harushika Nama Junmai Ginjo Genshu LIMITED
As you will notice these are all "new" or extremely "limited" brews as far as you are concerned for they are all being offered for the first time at True Sake. We don't even have pictures of the sakes up yet at the website! But we will.

And away we go!

1st Course: Panzanella of calamari, scallops, mussels, with root vegetables.
  • Gokyo - This dish had so many complex flavors with a heavy hand on beets and parsley, it made me wonder what wine would work. The Gokyo tried its best and worked very well with the olive oil creating a richness and a hint of smokey qualities with each bite. The sake accepted the complexity and ushered on the flavors, but didn't really excel. Kazu said the Gokyo washed off the flavors and didn't really help out.
    BT - W
    KY - DNW
  • Wakatake - The wonder of all wonders! A nigori to a Panzanella is like bringing a cucumber to a knife fight! But guess what? This baby worked on so many levels. First the nigori brought out a creaminess in the mussels and scallops, and then it stood toe to toe with the complexity of the mixed flavors. Then the "Demon Slayer" kept the olive oil in place allowing for each bite to be muted of the powerful oil blanket. Pretty impressive pairing pitting a semi-dry unfiltered sake with a totally complex southern Italian original. Kazu added that the dish brought out a sweeter side to the sake and it harmonized well with the entire offering.
    BT - WW
    KY - WW
  • Harushika - This brew drinks sweet and naturally it attracted the sweetness of the shellfish and the squid. The higher acidity level managed to lasso the entire flavor portfolio of the dish and pulled each bite tight! It is a big sake, and this was exactly what this dish needed, a helping hand. Kazu said that all of the complexities of the dish actually removed some of the sweetness of the sake.
    BT - WW
    KY - WW
2nd Course: Rabbit Liver Salad - Rabbit livers and kidneys with golden raisins, celery and arugula.

  • Gokyo - What an amazing dish! A taste bonanza. The Gokyo "Tanuki" did a great job jumping at the large liver flavor and creating an elegant taste. I wrote "rich and tasty" as my description of the flavors created by the pairing. I also wrote a "good pairing partner that is silent and strong." This brew really made a wonderful balance of flavors taste elegant and exotic, it didn't over-shine the dish nor did it back away. Kazu said that the sake washes the liver flavor but had no problem balancing with the greens.
    BT - WW
    KY - W
  • Wakatake - Interestingly the power of the dish made the nigori go blank. Basically the sake goes weak and to the background. There is no unique interaction, just two ships in the night. It's not bad, nor is it a bonus. Kazu said almost the opposite. He thought the sake became part of the dish and made the liver taste even better "more elegant."
    BT - W
    KY- WW
  • Harushika - This sake is really a foodie. The Harushika pulls out the veggie tones of the arugula and celery and tones down the liver and kidneys - a great unifier. The acidity goes right to the heart of the matter and really creates an enhanced flavor for the dish pushing down some flavors and elevating others. The sweetness dances with the golden raisins and engulfs the dressing. Kazu nodded his head and said "very delicious" with much harmony.
    BT - WW
    KY - WWC
3rd Course: Squid ink tonnarelli with Manila clams, cucunci, fennel and tomato.

  • Gokyo - This Junmai goes "even" with this flavorful and base dish. It didn't distract and wasn't a bonus. The Gokyo was not distracted by the elevated acidity of the tomato sauce and I wrote the meeting was "uneventful." It did its job. Kazu said the sake added a sweeter flavor to the dish and he liked it.
    BT - W
    KY - WW
  • Wakatake - Where the Gokyo went "even," the nigori went "solid." The starchy pasta and starchy sake went hand in hand and the semi- sweetness of the Wakatake created a brighter flavor with the tomato sauce. The sake acted as a good cover adding a hint of flavor and feeling to a flavorful dish. Kazu saw the nigori working in a different fashion. He said, "Sake stays as is and dish stays as is."
    BT - WW
    KY - WW
  • Harushika - My first words, "Wow, a very exciting pairing." The very vivid sake pokes fun at the richness of the dish and makes the tomato sauce jump with brightness. The Harushika is totally in the driver's seat of each bite making its presence felt for the better. I wrote, "wakes the dish up." Kazu felt otherwise. He said the sake over-powered the dish.
    BT - WW
    KY - DNW
4th Course: Pizza! Funghi - mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, grana, garlic, oregano, dandelion greens, and olive oil.

  • Gokyo - Well, this was the money shot dish for this particular Sake Challenge. Pizza is what brought us to A16. And let me say the Gokyo got slapped around. The first sip was extremely acidic, the second sip conflicted with the aged cheese and all in all it was a chippy pairing. Kazu said, "nothing happened, and the sake got lost."
    BT - DNW
    KY- DNW
  • Wakatake - I was hopping the nigori would fair better but it did not. The pairing was creamy at first then a crush of acidity destroyed the finish. Unbalanced from beginning to end. Basically like to opponents fighting each other. Kazu stated that the pizza over-powered the sake. Crazy, but pizza over-powering a nigori is so funny.
    BT - DNW
    KY - DNW
  • Harushika - So the nama was the last chance to save this part of the Challenge. And the big fruit elements actually stuck to the complex and large flavors of the pizza. It was sort of a chippy pairing, but the acidity of the sake made the flavor of the pizza more bright and popped a bit more. Thankfully it worked! Kazu switched up and said unlike the nigori the nama over-powered the pizza. Ha!
    BT - W
    KY - DNW
5th Course: Prosciutto tasting - La Quercia Berkshire (Iowa) prosciutto and prosciutto di Parma (Italy).

  • Gokyo - Great Pairing!! Sweet and savory elements blending together in round and smooth delivery. The Iowa prosciutto tasted buttery and salty and the Gokyo made the fat taste even "more buttery" and tickled the saltiness. The Parma prosciutto was even more salty and had more of a solid flavor and the Gokyo worked extremely well in balancing out the saltiness. I wrote the word "Treasure" for this pairing! Kazu said the sake cut the salt perfectly.
    BT - WWC
    KY - WW
  • Wakatake - The nigori also did very well with the cured meats. It captured the saltiness and smoothed it out. Hints of dryness in the sake came forward. A very good balanced pairing. Kazu said that the first bite didn't really work but then the sake acclimated and did okay.
    BT - WW
    KY - W
  • Harushika - The nama genshu takes the fat and cuts it pretty well. The saltiness of the meats jump with the fruitiness of the sake, and there is a long hint of acidity. The tingle that this pairing creates pushes a crispness of flavor which is fun with the salt and fruit - sort of a crisp sweet and savory play. Kazu said the nama balanced the salt.
    BT - W
    KY - W
Summary: It's funny how these Challenges turn out! Going in I was prepared to taste three sakes that went well with Pizza! But they fell on the collective faces. Perhaps we picked a complex pie - we did for sure - but I expected a better showing. The part of the Challenge where I felt that the sakes would crumble, they stood like stones - solid and sound. In a word, this could have been some of the most complex flavors to date on these tastings and the sakes just rocked. Enhancing flavors, creating new textures, complimenting dishes, the sakes did everything you could ask for in a pairing. I was personally impressed with each brew. The Gokyo "Tanuki" was solid and accepted all. The nigori danced with complexity. And the nama genshu popped with dishes that were pretty much founded in richness. Despite the pizza collapse, I was very pleased with our sake efforts and feel that they did as well or better than most wines.

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