February 2010

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Southern Comfort Food

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, February, Newsletter, Sake Challenge
The Front Porch 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.

Once again I was fortunate enough to coax Kazu Yamazaki from Japan Prestige Sake International, Inc to follow in tow on the latest Sake Challenge. But where would our dear beverage take us this month? How about Southern Soul/Comfort Food with a NOLA twist that can only be found on "The Front Porch" in the Mission.

I've had challenged sake in New Orleans and we recently did a comfort food pairing at Blue Plate "Americana Cuisine," but these flavors were a little more subtle and unique. In a word the Cajun/Creole influences were very muted and perhaps a little more elegant than what you would find down in the swamp. Kazu wanted to have my Urakasumi Honjozo as one of the brews (he did not know that we were going to The Front Porch) and I added the dry but well-bodied brew from Kochi prefecture under the assumption that it would do well with fried elements.
  1. Tsukasabotan Fuin Junmai Ginjo
    From Koichi Prefecture.
    SMV: +5 Acidity: 1.4
  2. Urakasumi Honjozo Genshu
    From Miyagi Prefecture.
    SMV: -1 / Acidity: +1.5
Tsukasabotan Urakasumi
And away we goooooooooooo!

1st Course: Gumbo with androuille sausage and stewed okara with chicken

Tsukasabotan - This pairing is very smart! The gentle dryness of the brew works very well with the subtle gumbo (by gumbo standards) and has a nice working relationship with the rice. The dish actually makes the sake drink a little sweeter and the acidity play is very elegant. A good clean companion. Kazu also noticed the sake drank a little sweeter "the sweetness pops up," but he liked it.

Urakasumi - Again the interesting thing about this dish is that it makes both sakes drink sweeter, but it was far more noticeable with the Urakasumi. This brew is large so it envelopes the flavors and compacts them with a hint of acidity. I will say that when you had a mouth full of chicken the sake drank better as a savory and sweet pairing. Kazu said the sake was too large and dominated the flavors.
BT - W

2nd Course: Spicy Shrimp and Grits Caroline - low country special of sautéed shrimp, bacon, mushrooms, and garlic over Anson milled grits

Tsukasabotan - There is a little conflict with the creaminess of the grits and the sake, but the smoothness wins the day. The brew does act as a fairly decent wash and generally rounds out all of the flavors. Rice water and grits - such a funny concept but on the whole they work more as a feeling pairing than a flavor accompaniment. Kazu really liked this pairing a lot - which is even more funny - a Japanese guy pairing sake with grits! He immediately was taken with the fact that the sake brought out the buttery flavor of the grits, and the smokiness of the dish gets enhanced by the sake dancing with the shrimp and bacon etc.
BT - W

Urakasumi - The large sweetness of the brew comes immediately to the forefront and goes right at the heat of the bacon and spicy shrimp for a sweet heat effect. The acidity however competes and conflicts with the creaminess of the grits. Again Kazu liked sake with this dish, but for different reasons. He said that the Honjozo genshu blends into and really harmonizes with the dish from the creamy to smoky elements.
BT - W

3rd Course: Fried catfish with hush puppies, coleslaw, and sweat potato fries

Tsukasabotan - First let me say that the temperature of the sakes were closer to room temperature by this point. What a great flavor combination - the cornmeal breading, the salty fish and the dry ricey brew. I was impressed with the smooth and even notes of this pairing, but it was the flavor union that worked oh so well. I guess one would look for balance in a so-called pairing - this duo was the epitome of balance and pure flavor. Ironically Kazu said "Nothing happened" but I think this comment is like a new haircut that nobody notices - it's a good thing!
KY - W

Urakasumi - The Urakasumi's girth goes right at the savoriness of the dish creating a very nice sweet and savory play. What is unique is that the smoothness of the large brew melds into the juicy and oily nature of the dish and the cornmeal goes well with the sweetness of the sake. Kazu said that this pairing was well balanced.
BT - W
KY - W

4th Course: Fried Chicken - Momma Clare's recipe with garlic mashers, gravy and collard greens.

Tsukasabotan - Sadly this very anticipated dish was a garlic bomb! Of the three pieces of chicken, two were just way too G-force! Thus it killed a pairing capability. The Tsukasbotan tries its best to tamper down the huge garlic presence and does okay as a flavor push. A nice sweetness comes out and the sake goes well with just the flesh of the bird. Kazu just said "Too garlic."
BT - W
KY - W

Urakasumi - As garlic was the flavor of the dish this massive brew jumped into the sweet hoop and the acidity of the pairing was the last thing on stage. Sweet, garlic, and acidic! Yum. But there wasn't a massive conflict - just a subtle tremor of a bad dish and a good sake. Kazu just said "No!" LOL
BT - W
KY - W


Okay so now we know from catfish to gumbo and from grits to gravy sake does not falter or lie down and beg for mercy. Sake works! This pairing had a lot of starch working with some exotic flavors to boot and in most cases the two brews worked. Sadly there was no WWC pairing but there were enough WW's to keep us smiling. What impressed me the most was that the brew that I thought would do better did not do as well as the sake that I thought may have some problems. Thus it is a crapshoot where everybody wins! The Tsukasabotan drank really well and was quite a pairing partner. And the Urakasumi with its strength and gusto showed that you cannot overwhelm some sakes with huge flavors - they can stand toe to toe. All in all I liked the fact that if somebody were to go to a comfort food shack - even one that was deeply influenced by NOLA sake would be a welcomed dinner companion. Good pairing and good fun!

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