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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.


This month's Sake Challenge pits two brews - Wakatake Onikoroshi Junmai Genshu and Umenishiki Junmai Ginjo Genshu - against Essencia "Organic Peruvian Restaurant".


My fellow guinea pig ripe for the slaughter is none other than Kazu Yamazaki (YM) from Japan Prestige Sake International (please see the 5 for 5 interview above) who imports more sake into the US than any other concern. Of course I brought two of Kazu's sakes!


The format is that we selected a balanced offering off of the menu with recommendations from the server to achieve the true Peruvian experience, and paired each dish to both sakes. For the perfectionists out there we started both sakes off at fridge temperature and left the bottles on the table with no ice. By the final pairings the temperature of the sakes was closer to room temperature. I selected these two brews to represent a fruity brew (Umenishiki) and a dry brew (Wakatake) and made them both "Genshu" because I predicated lots of spice and thought that undiluted sakes would do better with these larger flavors. I also took price into consideration and selected two sakes under $30.


Sake vs. Peruvian Cuisine (Essencia)

Before I go into the course by course blow by blow I wanted to read to you a portion of their menu to help you scratch your head and say "wow - sounds like sake would really go with that!" (Our food bears the influence and ingredients of many immigrants, among them Spanish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Creole, coupled with indigenous flavors such as cilantro, lime, corn, potatoes, pulses, grains, and the heat of the capsicum fruit known as aji. We offer various naturally raised roasted meats, fish, and fowl with unparalleled organic local ingredients from the Bay Area.)



Kampachi Ceviche - sliced tiradito style with creamy aji Amarillo- lime drizzle.

Umenishiki - The high acidity of the Ginjo strikes up bright tones with the lime and citrus elements of the fish. There is a snappy collaborative of flavors in the sake and the spicy yellow sauce, which the Ginjo manages to capture and enhance. Bright and fresh.

Wakatake - The dryer Junmai brings out a creamy element of the sauce and the fish rounds out a little. The creaminess is pervasive but the heat of the spices overwhelms the Junmai. Very drinkable as a pairing but the nudge goes to the Umenshiki!

BT: Umenishiki for a B
KY: Umenishiki for a B+

Sea Bass Ceviche - with lime, orange poached camote, avocado and big corn.

Umenishiki - With the soft lime tones this pairing is superb. The Ginjo cuts the acidity of the fruit and makes the citrus go even not jumpy. The sweetness of the sake comes forth in a round a soft delivery and the freshness of the fish comes out in gentle and lively way. Excellent acidity play!

Wakatake - The dry Junmai goes very neutral with this dish. No enhancing and no subtracting of flavors. The acidity of the sauce brings forth a sweetness in the finish of the sake. The balance is there, the covering of spice is there, and the cleanliness of the brew is present all the way through the pairing, but again for the Ceviche dishes the Umenishiki really pops with the acidity and the fruit elements make for a more drinkable pairing.

BT: Umenishiki for an A
KY: Umenishiki for an A



Octopus Salad - plancha flashed with celery hearts and botija olive aioli

Umenishiki - The high acidity of the Ginjo and the higher alcohol umph makes this pairing more festive and lively. The brightness carries over from the octopus to the veggies and really enhances the "field" flavors of the celery. This brew really goes well with the briny yet sweet elements of the octopus.

Wakatake - The creaminess of the aioli is enhanced by the creamier Junmai. Overall this brew takes the flavor and feel of this pairing to a neutral and smooth level - goes soft and flat but never losses the balance. A good compliment on feel and texture of the sauce and octopus, and I would say that between the two the Umenishiki went better with the octopus and the Wakatake went better with the aioli.

BT: Wakatake for a B-
KY: Umenishiki for a B



Artichoke Heart Salad - with quinoa, frisee and black mint sauce.

Umenishiki - The strong yet elusive flavor of the hearts stripped the sweetness out of the fruity Ginjo and left a little balance issue. However for a specific flavor - a mining of sorts - the Ginjo did do very well with the black mint sauce as the fruit met the tingle and the 3rd flavor became a rich and semi-sweet affair.

Wakatake - Wow! Stop the old "what wine goes with artichokes?" age- old search! What a slam dunk full court press pairing. This melding of soft textures and complex flavors dances perfectly. Very round, very creamy, and extremely smooth the fluid becomes demon called an artichoke. Liquid artichoke I don't know, but the smokiness and subtle richness of the hearts melts like butter in the clean, round and confident Junmai. The perfect "up yours grape juice" pairing! Superb! The search is over! No grape can do justice to the power of this starch to artichoke pairing. As if that were not enough - the "quinoa" which is quite similar to cous cous makes the Wakatake go heavenly as the smoothness and extremely solid build of the brew brings forth a round and "starchy" evenness to the pairing.

BT: Wakatake for an A+
KY: Wakatake for an A+



Aji de Gallina - pulled chicken in pecan sauce with brown rice

Umenishiki - The fruit immediately pulls a sweetness when rowing with the saltiness of the chicken. There is an ever-present nuttiness that is rich and large in flavor but not acidity. A gentle spiciness in the dish makes the fruitiness of the brew remain. The rice and pecan elements both go on the sweet side with the Ginjo.

Wakatake - Bingo! The full-bodied flavor of the sake goes extremely well with the full-bodied flavors of the dish. Power meets power in a smooth and even pairing. Rich and smooth the brew makes the dish work! By going dry the Junmai makes the hidden spice of the pulled chicken come center stage and the sweetness of the pecan sauce is then made evident. The best part of the pairing is the feeling factor as the brew makes the chicken and pecan sauce go soft and deep. Just a great fit pairing!

BT: Wakatake for an A
KY: Wakatake for an A-



Pork Loin - with canario bean and Tacu Tacu, bacon and quail egg.

Umenishiki - The spice of this version of pork loin is calmed or blended by the fruitiness of the Ginjo. It plays even with the pork, but does not excel. A good flavor companion that stays original in taste from beginning to end. However the Ginjo does quite nice with the rice and bacon and pulls out a spicy and smokey 3rd flavor that is quite tasty.

Wakatake - The Junmai brings out the richness of the dish and does very well with saltiness of the pork. The smokiness or woody flavor of the pork stays even and round with the sake. A solid pairing that makes flavor and feeling work in harmony. Interestingly the bacon and rice elements become a bit choppy with the Junmai.

BT: Wakatake for a B
KY: Wakatake for a B-



Overall this Japanese Peruvian melding of flavors, textures, and essences was a tremendous success. It would be a challenge to find one wine to make all these dishes work, and yet on the whole we found two brews that worked well on so many different levels. The base element of spice was not that much of a hurdle for sake to jump. The spice was both mellowed and enhanced on several fronts, but what was exceptional was the fact that the sakes worked rather than conflicted with the entire dinning experience. Richness - brightness - heat - there were so many dexterities going on and yet sake held its own and in more cases than not made the dish better. And the pure bonus was finding the perfect "wine" to go with artichokes - who would have thunk it? I am extremely proud of how sake met this match, and Kazu was blown away by the experience. He thanked me profusely for even "thinking up the idea of having sake and Peruvian food," but I had to remind him that there is another Peruvian restaurant in SF that has sake on their wine menu. Sake wins again! When you think Peruvian think sake!


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