Craft cocktails, craft beer, craft ciders, an explosion of wine offerings from many corners of the globe: Is it just me, or are Americans becoming more curious about their alcohol? More recently, this curiosity is extending to sake, a fermented rice beverage from Japan, sometimes called rice wine. Like wine, sakes exhibit differing layers of flavor and texture, and with names like Bride of the Fox, Pearls of Simplicity, Demon Slayer, and Moon on the Water, each bottle comes wrapped in its own poetic story. Austin has seen a rapid increase in Japanese restaurants in the last few years, but those are not the only places you can find rice wine. Restaurants offering different Asian cuisine, or different cuisine altogether, are adding sake to their beverage lists and playing with food pairings. We went in search of establishments around town offering diverse and thoughtful sake programs to learn more about the movement and gather ideas of how to enjoy the beverage.
Adam Faraizl, the beverage director for Kenichi in Austin and one of fewer than 100 advanced sake specialists in the United States, is recognized across Texas for his expertise. His interest is rooted in a longtime passion for all things Asian, starting in high school with video games and anime. One little-known fact about Faraizl: He played the kid Eddie Kaspbrak in the Stephen King 1990 TV miniseries It, filmed in Vancouver. Faraizl loved the town so much, he returned to Canada for college. There he dove deeply into Asian culture and earned a degree in Pacific Asian studies from the University of Victoria. He comes to sake-buying with a deep understanding of the history, culture, and context of the beverage.
You can slam a sake bomb at Kenichi, but you would be missing out on the richness of their list: 13 by-the-glass selections and 53 bottles, representing everything from sparkling sake to top daiginjo. (See sidebar for more on sake grades.) If you are feeling lost, ask the well-versed staff for a sample, or tell your server what kind of wine you usually like. They can take that information and find you a sake that will suit your palate.
For a bold pairing, Faraizl recommends enjoying a junmai like Hatsumago "The First Grandchild" Kimoto with the Shiitake Negimaki, flattened sirloin wrapped around marinated shiitake mushroom and green onion, grilled and dropped with teriyaki and deep-fried garlic.
Swift's Attic is in the space previously occupied by the sushi restaurant Kyoto. Co-owner and General Manager CK Chin says that part of the inspiration behind Swift's sake program is to pay homage to Kyoto's 28-year service to Austin, but it has a life of its own as well. Swift's Attic is one of the only non-Asian restaurants in town with a comprehensive sake selection. Since their food menu is a rotating, international creation, there are ample possibilities to play with less-than-traditional pairings, and because their sake selection needs to stand up to a variety of flavors, their list offers bolder bottles and glasses.
One of my favorite suggestions is to pair Rihaku "Dreamy Clouds" Nigori with their Popcorn and a Movie confection: salted-butter ice cream served with a homemade candy bar, homemade caramel corn, and root-beer sauce.
Komé was designed to be a true izakaya. The owners Kayo and Také Asazu wanted to open a restaurant that reminded them of home, and Komé offers a warm, welcoming experience to guests. Most of the recipes come from Kayo's mother's kitchen.
Elizabeth Zerega, Komé's general manager, joined the team in April and participates in sake-buying with Kayo. She has taken a deep interest in the beverage and is investing a lot of time and energy educating the staff, teaching classes every Monday on sake, its production and history.
For a dynamic pairing, Zerega recommends Ichinokura Taru Sake, a cedar-aged sake showing hints of pepper and a rich full-mouth feel, with their Ika-Yaki, a whole grilled squid topped with fresh ginger.
No examination of the local sake movement would be complete without including the first American-owned sake company in the Unites States, right here in Austin. Owner and founder Yoed Anis is an advanced sake specialist, and every employee of the company will be a certified sake specialist by the end of the summer.
Texas Sake uses organic rice grown in South Texas from a strain brought to the area by Japanese immigrants more than 100 years ago. Anis only polishes his rice 20%, so it shows its unique character and maintains a fullness of flavor. It is important to Anis that his product be as pure and sustainable as possible: handcrafting in small batches using local organic produce, honoring the terroir, fermenting with airborne yeasts and house-cultivated koji, and bottling with no additives. For him, the quality of the sake is not determined by the level of polish in the rice, but in the quality of the ingredients.
Anis produces three sakes. Whooping Crane is an unfiltered junmai, weighty on the palate with a touch of acidity. Tumbleweed is a dry sake, reminiscent of a white wine, and Rising Star is a nigori, unfiltered and boasting tannic structure from the rice sediment. Their sakes are bolder than those of most modern Japanese producers, so the whole line can pair with a variety of food. Anis suggests trying the Whooping Crane with pizza, while Texas Sake Company brewer Brad Buckelew and sales representative Courtney Britt recommend their Rising Star nigori with bleu cheese.
The sake list makes up the first page of Uchi's beverage book, and they sell plenty. Some of that is the nature of the food, but much of it has to do with the staff. Dhal Smith – a certified sake specialist, anthropologist, and avid traveler, as well as the sake buyer for both Uchi and Uchiko – explains the staff's enthusiasm: "They have become knowledgeable and fascinated. We have a huge wine and sake list, and there are tastings and pairing discussions before every shift. It is about engaging the guest to find out what they want, not about up-selling. We consider this an institution of learning and want the guest to walk away with something they have never tried before."
One notable aspect of the Uchi sake experience is the use of masu, or cedar boxes. Uchi follows the tradition of overflowing glasses into the masu to show abundance and gratitude to their guests.
When we asked for pairing ideas, Smith said they don't use guidelines. Everyone's palate is different and they like to use guests as guinea pigs, particularly on specials, tasting them on several different sakes to see how the combination works. So be engaging and talk to your server and bartender. They will work to nail the pairing in the moment.
Since Sway offers only wine and beer, Nate Wales, director of operations for La Condesa and Sway, thought sake would be a fun third dimension to the beverage menu. He's pleasantly surprised by how well it is selling. The staff has received a thorough education and tastes sake at least once a week to remain current.
Thai food is not traditionally served with sake, but Wales and the Sway staff have discovered some excellent pairings. Try Chiyonosono "Sacred Power" for a light and clean match to their oysters on the half shell. The oyster selection rotates per market offerings and is either topped with green or red chili nahm jihm, depending on the flavors in the shell.
Nigori: Unfiltered sake, bottled with rice sediment from fermentation. Milky and full-bodied. On the sweeter side and good for entry-level sake drinkers.
Junmai: A sake made from rice that has been polished at least 70%, leaving more amino acids and proteins. Tends to show more aggressive flavors and can pair with a wide variety of foods.
Daiginjo: Sake made from rice polished at least 50%, so only the starch kernel remains. Exhibits lighter, more delicate flavors.
Masu: A cedar box and unit of measurement originally employed in the spice trade or for paying workers in rice. Now masu are used across Japan to serve sake.
Izakaya: Cafes in Japan serving small plates and sake, usually frequented by people on the way home from work.
Koji: Spore used alongside yeast in sake double-parallel fermentation.
Hot sake: Not talked about in this article. Heat is often used to mask the flavors of a lesser quality sake, like nuking your Chardonnay in the microwave.
Sake Education Council: Only United States-based certification program for sake professionals recognized by the Japanese government. Founded and taught by John Gauntner. Certified sake specialists have passed level one and advanced sake specialists have gone through the level two course in Japan. More information at www.sakeeducationcouncil.org.
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