August 2009

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Spanish Tapas

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

sake challenge aug 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.

Ahhhhh! And what was this month's crazy challenge? Spanish Tapas - Yes! Sake and Tapas - No Way! My guest du jour was non other than Kazu Yamazaki who imports vast amounts of sake into the US - including the Urakasumi Honjozo that was mentioned in this newsletter! Kazu has a great pallet knows his foods well. He has been pleasantly surprised on other Sake Challenges - including the Southern Indian food experiment.

With sake in hand we headed to a very popular Spanish Tapas restaurant called Ramblas on Valencia Street. I was really looking forward to the pairing as "tapas" is very much in play with all cuisines these days. Small dish this and small dish that! But the best part of doing this pairing - like most of the others - is that something amazing happened. The brew I thought would do average worked wonders and the sake that I thought would excel did okay!

The two brews were:

  1. Masumi Sanka
    Junmai Daiginjo - SMV:+2 Acidity: 1.4
    Read more
  2. Kikuhime "Chrysanthemum Princess" 
    Yamahai Junmai - SMV: +2 Acidity: 2.0
    Read more

I brought a cold pack, but we left the brews on the table (ohh and Kazu was an hour late) so they warmed up to room temperature pretty quickly.

Let The Games Begin:

1st Course: Asparagus with Manchego cheese, sage and brown butter 

Masumi - The Sanka acted like the perfect clean wash for this pairing. It was fruity and balanced and made the veggie flavor more even. Did not conflict with the butter, in fact it washed the oils away very well. I wrote the bite was "clean and gone." Kazu said that the Sanka drank too fruity for the dish and he thought there was a bit of a distraction.

Kikuhime - The largeness of this massive and moody brew went right at the vegetable flavor. The sake itself has lots of veggie tones - so I thought it would be a good play. It was! Add the lactic acid and creamy elements of the Yamahai and the sage butter danced really well. Kazu said the vegetable flavor becomes "nutty" and he really enjoyed the pairing. This is a very good vegetable sake - including that crazy pairing disaster called artichokes.

2nd Course: Padron Peppers - salted and in olive oil.

Masumi - Sanka again acted like a clean wash which was pretty impressive with the heat and acidity of the peppers. The brew muted the acidity and pulled out a little sweetness in the bitter peppers. I liked the olive oil and salt flavors with the Sanka in my mouth - they worked together in a gentle slide. Kazu also said that the sweetness of the sake gets pushed by the salt and oil in a good and tasty wash.
BT - W

Kikuhime - The strength of the sake simply smothers all of the spice and saltiness of the dish! A classic izakaya-like action for the brew. Take all of the flavor and push the bite straight down the pipe. As the acidity is so high with this sake - it mutes the acidity of the dish. A pure feeling play for me. Kazu went nuts for this pairing. He loved the flavors and the feeling, and quit frankly was amazed how a big Yamahai such as this worked so "elegantly" with a salty and spicy dish.

3rd Course: Tortilla Espanol - Jamon Serrano, crispy Yukon potato, English peas, sherry carmalized onions, aioli, and salsa verde. 

Masumi - Okay - now we are talking! This dish has some very classic Spanish flavors and our little Daiginjo from Nagano went bonkers! I feared for the worst, but tasted the best. Talk about a great pairing. The confidence and balance of this sake stood toe to toe with all of the dynamic flavors - each and every one. My mouth hit the table when the Sanka took all of the expressions of the food wrapped them up in the tasty flow of the brew and washed the entire process down the back door! Truly a tremendous pairing! How? I don't know! But soooooo good! Likewise Kazu could not believe it!

Kikuhime - The saltiness and the starchyness of this plate went round with the Yamahai - meaning they went sort of neutral. Not really effective. The aioli got very creamy with the brew and a hot tingle of acidity presented itself. Tasted a little choppy. Kazu felt otherwise - he said that the sake made the potato lighter and smoother. He really liked the feeling and the flavor of the pairing.
BT - W

4th Course: Gambas Aijillo - Sauteed fisherman's daughter shrimp, garlic, onions, fennel, sherry and olive oil.

Masumi - Pretty much expected that sake would go with shrimp - from wherever in the world! This pairing was no exception. The shrimp ended up being pretty spicey and the Sanka did not excel as a wash - rather it stayed fruity and pulled a little sweetness and heat from the dish. Kazu said that nothing much happened but it was fine.
BT - W
KY - W

Kikuhime - The Yamahai ended up conflicting the with the spice of the shrimp! Where did that spice come from? The pairing almost became spritzy! Too spritzy! Kazu felt the pairing brought out the sweetness of the sake.
BT - W
KY - W

5th Course: Ramblas Paellas - Clams, mussels, gambas omai chicken, chorizo, peas, roasted red pepper, and saffron rice. 

Masumi - This is the house dish and the prototypical Spanish dish and in a word - our dear friend Sanka took the challenge very well! Go figure - all of that action - all of that ethnicity and the Daiginjo just worked it's butt off to take all of the flavor and wrap it up in one gentle and tasty sip. Unbelievable. Simply amazing how the sake washed all of the flavors from start to finish and left a clean and sublime tail. I wrote that the Sanka "took all of the flavors and deposited them in the back like a locomotive - pushing all!" The sweetness of the sake presented itself more, according to Kazu. He said the Sanka blended with the rice smoothly.

Kikuhime - The Yamahai became a wild ride of flavors and feelings. The brew is large and this dish was equally large and where the Sanka smoothed things out - the Kikuhime stood up and rumbled with the taste. Like a fist-fight in the mouth - moving - blending - stomping etc. The dish actually made the sake drink far sweeter than any other pairing. I liked it. Like a huge red wine smashing with all of the flavors. Kazu said the sake highlighted the tomatoes and made the shellfish taste more sweet. He too liked the pairing.


There was a part of me who feared this battle going in! Why? I can't say - especially after all of my other tougher "Challenges" like Indian etc. I just thought that the Daiginjo would get crushed and the Yamahai would be too aggressive. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Masumi Sanka just rocked! I am blown away by how a Daiginjo acted like the perfect pairing cleaner - taking/sweeping all of the flavor expressions in a nice and gentle wash. I highly recommend this brew for your next Tapas night! The Kikuhime also did pretty darn well. It worked in other capacities - creating new flavors and feelings. I thought that this brew would be the real winner and it was good, just not as good as the Masumi. The largeness of the sake did stand up to all of the big flavors and acted more along the lines of a big red wine! I am exceptionally pleased with the end result of these two sakes and Spanish Tapas.


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