January 2008

Sake Moment - Italian Food Meet Sake!

Posted by Beau Timken in 2008, January, Newsletter

Continuing my series of "Westernizing" sake and cuisine I brought an old friend with a new title to one of the best effort restaurants in California - Incanto - in Noe Valley, SF. 


My friend with the new title is Mr. Yasutaka Daimon - owner of Daimon Shuzo in Osaka (makers of Mukune Junmai Ginjo) - who now not only pays the bills but also is the head brewer of his own brewery. This owner/operator/toji title is occurring more and more in the industry and may become a trend that could bring a new simplicity to a very difficult profession. This potential "trend" is worthy of a future Newsletter segment, but for now let's focus on a tremendous evening filled with gutsy Italian food and a sake that has enough grit to make for some wonderful pairings.


Firstly Incanto - the brainchild of Mr. Mark Pastore - is a Californian version of an Italian restaurant! Sounds simple, but in reality it is the essence of taking the tiger of out the jungle but not being able to take the jungle out of the tiger. San Francisco is not Italy! But Italy is not San Francisco, and by using what we have in the Bay Area in an "Italian" flow Incanto captures the soul of a nation within four walls in Northern California. And to capture a soul one needs a serious soul hunter - found in the form of Chef Chris Cosentino! (Please by all means check out Chris in action at the Chow.com "Obsessives" link above - yes he is a fellow "obsessive.") In a word Chris is a culinary tiger and that has a new meaning in San Francisco. He will leap any well-defined barrier in the established Italian food industry, and I could only pray that my guest's sake would meet the hefty challenge.


The bottle of Mukune "Root of Innocence" Junmai Ginjo was not of Yasutaka's making - his brews - made as the head brewer - will come on-line in about 5 months in the US. The version of Mukune that I brought to Incanto was made by none other than celebrity (said for PH's smile) sake brewer Philip Harper. Philip - the first white boy Toji - worked at Daimon Shuzo for the past several brewing seasons and is now making sake in Kyoto prefecture. His influence and style made for a little gamier drinking experience and this stacked up well with all of the cured meats that found our plates!


I will list the dishes that we were served, how Mukune worked and our grades for each pairing: (YD = Yasutaka and BT = Beau)


  • Mushroom crustini with light oil (gift from the kitchen)Mukune works with the mushrooms by down playing the oil and becoming a tad more sweet with the richness of the fungi. It created a smoothness with the feeling and the flavor of the dish.
    YD = B BT = B


  • Huge anti-pasta platter for two of Boccalone artisan salumi, roasted garlic & marinated vegetables.What a glorious pairing as Mukune went happy-feet with the oily salty meats! The higher acidity of Mukune brought out a sweetness in the house cured meats (especially the head cheese - wow!) and the compact tone of the brew didn't back down at all. Likewise Mukune also brought out an amazing sweetness in the roasted garlic - just a terrific balance of flavor and feeling. But my most favorite and most baffling (as in "how in the hell?") pairing from this platter was the house made whole grain mustard that had a massive presence and worked like a dream with Mukune - was it the acidity playing with the vinegar-like sharpness - was it the dryness playing with the grain - I do not know, but it Mukune was amazingly adept at neutralizing the largness of the flavor and making it more round in the palate.
    YD = A BT = A-


  • Escarole (leaf) with toasted almonds, ricotta & raisins.Okay here we go! A sake with an Italian salad - did it work? In a sense yes, but overall Mukune was a little lost in all of the subtle flavors. In a word Mukune sort of went soft as in laid down. It didn't highlight nor detract from the salad, but it also didn't make the cheese pop or bring forth a snap of flavors. It worked, but only in a subtle capacity.
    YD = B BT = B-


  • Pasticcio of pig's trotter, kidney, chestnuts & nettle.Can anybody think of a more beefy (I know - piggy) hearty, and wintry dish than this stew that came in a small crock pot to the table? I don't think so in an Italian sense. The flavors were immense, deep and rich beyond belief. A very masculine flavor-base that needed quite a masculine brew to work together. And wow what a flavor hand-shake as Mukune went to the mat with all of the largeness. Just an eye-opening pairing! Mukune completely stood-up to the grandness of this dish and did what a perfect libation should do - compliment without detracting and enhancing the edges of the dish. (For me this was the "money" pairing as the possibilities of sake and western fare met in a very hearty pot that has influences from all nationality cuisines in the mix - the future is indeed bright!).
    YD = A+ BT = A


  • Salted cod with locally grown yuzu and oil.This salty and citrusy ensemble made for my perfect pairing of the evening as I could eat salted fish all day and night! The citrus and oil play was superb, and of course Mukune was swimming along with the salty and bright flavors. I wrote in my notes "Mukune went crazy - the salty fish brought out a gentle sweetness in the Mukune that the salted pork did not pull" I could have had a far bigger glass of Mukune with this pairing (we only had 720mls for all of the pairings and had to watch out intake - which we weren't so good at!)
    YD = A- BT = A


  • Chef Chris then started going "off menu" on us and produced an "air cured" yellow fin with capers and a hint of oil.The yellow-fin exploded in a very deep rich and expansive way - even the capers said "goodbye" in a see-ya-later way! I wrote that 'Mukune works with the huge flavor of the dried fish and it neutralizes the subtle oil play to produce a balanced pairing." By the way, I love the taste of cappers and sake! At this point we had a lot of flavors and acidities working in our mouths, which is very much in-line with Italian dishes, and Mukune was drinking so well.
    YD = A BT = A-


  • Barolo & radicchio risotto with Castlemagno cheese. I love tossing sake at risotto, so I really looked forward to pairing Mukune with this red-wine-based risotto. But overall - and this doesn't happen that often - the Mukune didn't work. Hmmmmm? Why I asked and perhaps it had something to do with the red wine, but overall it didn't highlight nor compliment the dish. In fact for me it detracted from the richness of the warm risotto. Sadly this was my least favorite pairing when I thought that it would be my favorite. I wrote in my notes "too much acidity" and cannot remember if I was speaking about the risotto or the Mukune. (probably the risotto)
    YD = B BT = C+


  • Braised pork, smashed root vegetables, chard, and salsa verde.This is the "stuff" that sake is built for! Rich and dark green flavors always work with a brew that has a pronounced structure and acidity level. And Mukune did not disappoint, especially with the greens. My dinner guest suggested that the pork was on the "dry side" but I found that all of the juices from the pig and the veggies at the bottom of the dish a good way to "mix-it-up" and drip more feeling into the meat. The Mukune played wit the saltiness and richness, but it also pressed the bitterness of the vegetable which I found to be a surprising effort. Again, this is a very universal dish and the Mukune went hand in hand!
    YD = B- BT = B+


  • Chris came back with another off-menu item of an entire grilled eel that had been braised with balsamic vinegar.There is no lie that eel and sake go hand-in-hand (wait eels don't have hands), and this pairing is popular in many different forms in Japan. The difference at Incanto was the balsamic vinegar. Mukune went right at the eel and brought out a richness that was really delicious and then it hit the vinegar and the most amazing "smoky" flavor came forth. I thought the vinegar would overwhelm my rice water from Osaka, but it did not. This was a very "professional" pairing and I am fairly confident that Mukune did as well or even better than most red wines.
    YD = B+ BT = B+


All in all I will conclude by saying that sake rocked Italy that night at Incanto! Mukune made a massive statement amongst some massive flavors, and this just gives me such a thrill to show owners of breweries - who would never believe that their sakes would stand up to non-Japanese fare - that sake has a place in every restaurant in the world. And that is my continued goal - to have sake on every menu that offers wine!


PS. If you would like to order some of the amazing cured meats that we tasted at Incanto please visit Chris and Mark's own cured meats website at www.boccalone.biz



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