It is no secret that sake is a multi-faceted beverage that shows a wide range of styles based on prefectural regions or specific methods of production.
Most of the sakes that we are often exposed to are clean and fruity, but there’s a world of complex styles being made throughout Japan and other parts of the world.
The ability to enjoy it with various styles of cuisine pushes boundaries every day. There is an exciting wave of non-Asian restaurants experimenting with sake with traditional French food, Spanish and even Mexican.
Pairing sake with various cuisines has become one of my favorite inspirations. It is not uncommon you’ll find me pairing sake with hamburgers, tacos and barbecue.
A few days ago, I took the challenge and partnered with the Culinary Institute of America at Copia. I’ve been a big fan of chef Polly Lappetito’s food since the first time I went to Ciccio in Yountville.
Her traditional and authentic approach to Italian cuisine seemed like the perfect way to give sake an opportunity to impress, and it exceeded expectations.
During the planning stages with Seth Johnson, who oversees the restaurant operations, we tried a variety of Lappetito’s classics with several expressions of sake. The exercise was eye-opening and life-changing. The ability to stand up to big flavors like pepper and Parmesan cheese was the equivalent of watching Shaun White win the gold medal at the Winter Olympics.
The challenge was on, we sent an invitation to a select group of beverage professionals, chefs and sake aficionados. We took over the private dining room adjacent to the restaurant, which allowed for an intimate setting.
As a greeting for the attendees, we wanted to start with a cocktail, and based on the Italian theme, we landed on a Negroni interpretation with sake instead of gin. This was no easy task. I tried several styles of sake that would complement the vermouth and Campari, rather than overpower it or get lost in the mix.
The winner was a bottling by Watanabe Shuzo, based in Niigata’s Nechi Valley. This particular sake is a Nama (unpasteurized) Honjozo that shows vibrant fruit and florals and a bold and lively mouthfeel. It is great on its own. The crowd enjoyed the concoction paired with arancini (crispy rice balls) and scallions wrapped in thin cut beef as the crowd mingled.
The first course of the dinner consisted of an array of shared dishes: beef tongue salad with gribiche, a garden crudo plate of vegetables, potato frica (crispy cheese and potato) and pickled sand dabs. For these dishes, I poured Tamura Shuzo Yamasake4 Junmai Ginjo from Tokyo. Every time I sip on this sake, the floral nose and acidity on the palate reminds me of a northern Italian white wine like Erbaluce or Cortese, which regionally would be paired with this style of dishes.
The next course was arguably the favorite of the night, Cacio e Pepe. It is a Roman pasta dish that consists of spaghetti, Pecorino Romano and black pepper, a dish that is not shy with flavor and spice. This was probably one of the hardest challenges of the night, but we found a sake that not only showed up to the party but was ready to put on a show: Shizengo Cuvée 18 Koshu by Ooki Daikichi from Fukushima Prefecture.
This historic brewery takes an unorthodox approach to Koshu (aged sake) blending three batches from different years and further aging together for a number of years. The result is an explosive sake that drinks like a fino Sherry, oxidative, aromatic and bold. It was like listening to Luciano Pavarotti singing “O Sole Mio” live!
The next course was a selection of Lappetito’s wood- burning pizza, spicy coppa, margherita and white pizza with broccoli rabe. Here came one of my favorite sakes, the Jozen Uonoma Junmai from Shirataki Shuzo in Niigata. The way this one is produced delivers a rich, complex and elegant style akin to a Burgundian red wine; hints of cocoa, forest floor and toast jump out of the glass.
Then came the final course, and one of my personal weaknesses — dessert. A classic approach to tiramisu alongside an orange zest cannoli. For this course, I wanted to stay away from the obvious so I steered away from sweet sake. The pairing was a sharp, bright and citrusy Junmai Ginjo from Fukushima under the Shizengo label.
The evening turned out to be a success. The nearly 30 attendees were exposed to a new concept that proved the ability to pair western cuisine with this ancient Japanese beverage. More to come!