February 2011

Sake Challenge - Sake vs. Vegetarian Cuisine ala Greens Restaurant

Posted by Beau Timken in 2011, February, 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 pitted sake with vegetarian cuisine. Pretty generic I know, but the point was to isolate sake with veggies, veggies, and more veggies, and where else other than "Greens Restaurant" would one want to go to attack all things "green." I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by Tamiko Ishidate - yes the same Tamiko who wrote the above Sake Spotlight on the very brew that we took to Greens - of Joto Sake. Tamiko is a superstar in the sake world known by all and one of the hardest working people in the industry. She has a wickedly good sake palate and has a way of nailing down sakes very creatively with a style all her own. As she works for Joto Sake we brought two of her brews:
  1. Chikurin "Organic" Junmai Ginjo "Karoyaka"
    New to the US.
  2. Yuho Junmai
    Read More »
And away we go!

1st Course: Grilled Ridgecut Gristmills Polenta - with grilled wild mushrooms, crisp shallots, herb cream, shaved grana padano and arugula.

Chikurin - The sort of crisp sake took a turn to the creamy side with a soft introduction to the dish. Starts smooth, then creamy, then gets a little tingly in the finish. The sake acted as a good wash of the creamy polenta and it did not distract. I liked how the Chikurin paired with the mushrooms creating a "pop" or elevating effect on the richness of the shrooms. The Chikurin did add a new flavor to the dish and the sake itself drank a little sweeter. Tamiko said the start was like a good marriage, but the finish separated too much and the marriage was over and the polenta won.
BT - W
TI - W

Yuho - Right from the beginning, the Yuho butts heads with the creaminess and flavor of the polenta. The sake almost takes on a minty quality and is a bit of distraction. I thought the brew would work well with the soft and smooth polenta, but it didn't. Too much of a sake. That said I was totally stoked to taste the Yuho with the mushrooms. Wow! What a great pairing that blends the buttery, savory, and rich flavors of the brew with the same components in the mushrooms. So NICE! Where the Chikurin made the mushrooms pop and clean up a bit the Yuho highlighted all of the deep flavors and richness. Tamiko said the Yuho worked with the dish as a cover and she too really liked the mushroom and buttery feel and flavor of the pairing.
TI - W


2nd Course: Country Line Little Gems and Castle Franco Radicchio - with pink lady apples, pomegranates, fennel, walnuts, warm caveman blue crouton and cider vinaigrette.

Chikurin - So the "salad" dish was a tale of two cities in a manner of speaking. The Chikurin had a great showing as the acidity of the sake danced with the vinaigrette making a really good flavor match. The sake did its job by elevating the brightness and crispness of the salad. I wrote, "Bright and crisp, sake drinks sweeter, a snappy pairing that is bright and fresh." The Chikurin by itself has a balance problem, but that was not evident with this pairing as the brew drank very even and controlled. Tamiko and I high-fived when I read her my comments because she said the same thing that the Chikurin drank even and balanced as it wrapped around the acidity of the dish.
TI - W

Yuho - The second tale of the city was how "base" the Yuho made the salad. Where the Chikurin brightened the salad, the Yuho tamped down the flavor and feeling. It smothered the vinaigrette almost too much, numbs the lettuce, and covers the dish with a solid blanket, which was not bad but didn't really allow the dish to be crisp. It was a heavy hand, but not too much of distraction. Tamiko was "distracted" and she felt the sake went too flat and hammered down the pairing.
BT - W


3rd Course: Warm Italian Butter Beans - with Everything Under The Sun rapini, Arbequina olive oil, pepper flakes, shaved Pantaleo and grilled Italian bread.

Chikurin - Warm beans and a crisp sake? I didn't think the Chikurin had a chance, but was pleasantly surprised that it neither enhanced nor distracted from the pairing. The first sip was creamy and smooth like the beans, then a little bit of acidity came out at the finish. The dark green rapini and the brew paired nicely together creating a sweet flavor in the sake. Tamiko said there was a nice entry but the finish was off and she didn't like the texture play of a fight against the graininess of the beans.
BT - W
TI - W

Yuho - Where I thought the Chikurin didn't have much of a chance, I thought for sure the Yuho would rock steady with warm butter beans. And it did! The sake got velvety and smooth and created a smoky flavor in the pairing. Rich, round and smothering soft worked better with beans than with salad. The Yuho drank sweeter with the rapini and softer with the beans. Tamiko said "Buttery and buttery - texturally worked well."
BT - W
TI - W


4th Course: Grilled artichokes with lemon oil and mint

Chikurin - Ohhhh No! Artichokes? Nothing pairs with artichokes! Well not true at all there are several sakes that work world class with those green monsters. I will say this, the artichokes we had did not have a good flavor - winter artichokes. We forgot to ask where they came from. They were sort of watery and lacking. That said, Boing! That was the sound of the Chikurin bouncing off of the pairing. Immediate contrast. Started uneven, continued uneven, ended uneven. Crash! Tamiko nailed it when she said that the artichoke brought out the worst of the acidity of the sake.

Yuho - The Yuho had a tough hill to climb. But like the little train that could it kept up the fight and eventually was an okay pairing. The smoothness of the sake ruled the coupling and the Yuho ended up drinking on the herbaceous side (hint of sourness). The smooth round blanketing effect kept the artichoke even and base and the power of the brew matched the oddity of the "choke." Tamiko thought the train didn't make it said the sake drank flatter, dryer and more acidic.
BT - W

5th Course: Wild Mushroom Shepard's Pie - with caramelized onions, gruyere, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and pinot noir mushroom sauce. Served with roasted carrots, cipollini onions, parsnips and brussels sprouts.

Chikurin - Again the Chikurin acts like a buoy for this really tasty pairing. But this time instead of buoying a lighter dish it actually elevates this really full-bodied and rich dish. I wrote, "Deep rich mushroom flavor gets lifted by the Chikurin. It lightens the heaviness and makes the complex flavors more buoyant." It also made the carrots taste like candied carrots. The acidity of pinot sauce was not a problem at all for the sake. Perhaps they should use sake instead of wine next time. With a smile of amazement Tamiko said the sake works so hard to pair with the dish on all levels, taking its time, working, working and keeps trying. She was amazed that amongst all of the powerful flavors that the Chikurin managed to pull out the natural sweetness of the veggies.
Yuho - This dish had Yuho written all over it! There was a nice creamy and buttery beginning and you could almost taste a starch to starch quality. The potatoes and the rice brew stood together. The richness of the dish was enveloped by the sake and made it one of those good feeling in the mouth pairings. Rich vs Rich. The sake actually drank sweeter with the savory elements of the mushrooms. Tasty! Tamiko said that the Yuho did nothing special and actually didn't work well with the root vegetables.
TI - W



Is it me or is vegetarian food hard to pair with in general? I was quite pleased with both sakes for several reasons. First the Chikurin is a different sort of sake that would actually appeal to wine drinkers as the acidity is very "across the board." As a sake drinker this can be distracting, but what was fun was to see how the acidity imbalances actually were nullified and "bettered" by the addition of food. The Chikurin is a good food sake. The Yuho is an unusual sake as well, but it too worked some magic, especially with the rich and round flavors. I will say this, that I now know that sakes can really rock with salads. Does that sound weird? And my favorite reminder of this whole pairing is to NOT FORGET that sake and mushrooms rock. Both brews excelled with the fungi! I will now look for more shroom and brew pairings!!

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