Tuesday, February 27, 2007

2/27/07: Tasting Event at Nihonshudō Headquarters

I made a call to Sakurai-san the night before, as he was in town for a short visit. Within couple of hours, we had a plan in place for a BYOS party at my place the next night.

Lefty was the first to arrive, with two 300 ml bottles (Hitorimusume "Sayaka" Junmai, Kamaya "Kyuzaemon" Junmai Taru) in his hands. While we waited on the others for arrive, we feasted on the first of two pies of handmade pizza and trying imo shochu (available only in Japan).

Timothy showed up around 9:30, right in the midst of a "24" episode (Jack and his dysfunctional family feud put on hold; everybody- hates- each- other politicos forced to work together; Chloe in a men's room; dysfunctional government working relationship leading to a big bang... Lefty's hooked!). Back to the saké, as Timothy came in with Shimeharitsuru Junmai Ginjo from Niigata Prefecture.

With Sakurai-san running a little late, we started on Timothy's selection first. Shimeharitsuru (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.4, Rice: Gohyakumangoku, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: N/A) was a clean saké with fruits/grain balance and a mineral/umami finish, a kind of saké that made me crave for a sashimi. After about two glasses, Sakurai-san made it into Astoria, and the evening was well under way.

The second bottle to try was the featured saké of the evening, Kaika "Tobindori" Shizuku Daiginjo Genshu (SMV: +4.5~5.5, Acidity: 1.1~1.3, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 38%, Yeast: N/A), which is a three different ways ("shizuku" = free run, "daiginjo" = most refined, and "genshu" = cask strength = undiluted ) of saying "low yield," which in turn translates to, "expensive" ($135/750 ml). This is a saké made for competition, meaning it is designed to stand out amongst hundreds of other sakés in the competion. It is, therefore, no surprise that the saké is very intense, starting from the nose. The soft approach is quickly met by intense honeyed pineapple reminsicent of Kakunkō, with more firmness. The finish is initially quick, but then resurfaces leaving a very lengthy trail.

With the witching hour approacing, we picked up our pace. We transitioned from the intense saké to vibrant one in the form of Dassai 50 Junmai Ginjo Nigori (SMV: +6, Acidity: 1.2, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: N/A) which really conveyed the effervescence of the lees and yeast, complemented by vibrant fruit. After a quick rinse of the glass, we got to try Kamaya "Kyuzaemon" Junmai Taruzaké (SMV: N/A, Acidity: N/A, Rice: N/A, Seimaibuai: 68%, Yeast: N/A), something I haven't tried before. Of all the taru I've tried, I consider it one of the most intense, with a dominant aroma and flavors of the cedar reminding me of being in the traditional Japanese bath.

Around this time, the short hand of the clock passed 1, meaning that the evening was coming to a close... afterall, it's only Monday! The last saké of the evening was Sayaka (SMV: +8, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Miyamanishiki, Seimaibuai: 55%, Yeast: N/A), which had earthy notes of grain and almonds with firm fruit. There was one bottle which was unopened, but it happens to be the one that we all know like the back of our collective hands: Dassai 50 Junmai Ginjo. Fear not, it is archived in my fridge for the next succesful evening.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

2/22/07: NY Saké Meetup Event at Satsko's Eldridge

February Meetup event took place at Satsko's on Eldridge, a new restaurant venue that opened up in SOHO. This comes on the heel of the January Event, which took place at their flagship location in Alphabet City. With the place being new and lacking liquor licence, it gave us a chance to hold a B.Y.O.S event. The bar has a very nice Japanese-inspired wood exterior, and intimate interior accented by red lamps and wall furnishings.

I was the second to arrive, after Sarina. Lefty arrived soon thereafter, and we decided to start the tasting. Afterall, 15 minute grace period was up!

Leading off, we started with my bottle. Since Lefty, the event organizer, took dibs on Dassai 50, I naturally chose Sato No Homaré Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: N/A). This was very well received by the group. Sato No Homaré has the added bonus of being such a unique and distinguished saké that there is no shortage of conversation. Min and Matt arrived as we were beginning to taste this bottle. I was surprised and pleased to find that Min, who I met the night we explored Space Saké together, is now working for Joto Saké. A few minutes later, we were joined by her co-worker Katie, who has spent some time in Osaka, and spoke some Japanese.

During this time, we were served our dinner. Most of us chose a la carte from the Mardi Gras themed menu, and I went with Jambalaya with Peking Duck and Chinese sausage. The saké paired very well with the Jambalaya.

The next on the list was Lefty’s Dassai 50 (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: N/A). Everybody loved this modern (fruity) style saké, which was an excellent contrast against the traditional approach of Sato No Homaré.

Third on the list was just-delivered Sarina’s Hakusan Junmai from Nada area in Hyogo Prefecture. This was the heaviest saké of the night, with creamy nose and intense sharp flavor of rice.

Then we were off to Min's selections, starting with Chikurin Fukamari Junmai (+4, 1.3, Yamadanishiki, 60%, N/A), a very elegant junmai. That was followed by Wataribuné 55 Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Wataribune, Seimaibuai: 55%, Yeast: N/A), with its rich nose of tropical fruits and flavors that balances the fruitiness with subtle earthiness. Katie brought out Shichi Hon Yari Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Tamazakae, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yeast: N/A) with its balance of fruits and grain flavors. The real treat was the unvailing of the Kasumitsuru Nama Genshu (data N/A), which was a real Genshu at 20% alcohol, and enough grain flavor and intensity to prove it. It's a masculine type of saké suitable for a winter's night.

That was the highlight of the night, before things degenerated a bit.

I am proud to say that I partook (and won) in my first attempt at a round of saké bombs. After few more glasses of saké, I did the foolish and challenge Warren the bartender in the second round, where I promptly lost handily.

Let's just say that the rest of the evening involved taking V train home, oversleeping my stop (to the tune of $25 cab fare), and a lost note pad and business cards. It was both an unforgettable and forgettable night in one.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

2/17/07: Tasting Notes on Sakura Masamuné "Kinmaré" Junmai Ginjo

Over the weekend, I got to try a saké from a very important brewery in the history of saké making, not to mention a nostalgic place of mine. Several weeks ago, I read an article by a friend of mine on "Shukan NY Seikatsu" paper featuring a tasting notes on Kinmaré. After emailing Mr. Akané, I found out that my journey to taste this bottle was far less than visiting Nada: Mitsuwa in Edgewater, New Jersey.

Sakura Masamuné is credited as the brewery that developed Association #1 yeast and discovered the famed "Miyamizu" flowing from Rokkosan (Mount Rokko) in Nada area of Hyogo Prefecture. Association #1 yeast was the first classified high quality yeast that was said to have virtually gone extinct, only to be rediscovered and reintroduced after 60 years of dormancy. Miyamizu is the mineral-rich hard water that allows vibrant fermentation, resulting in saké with bold flavors and sharp and clean "kiré," or the finish.

Interestingly, the term "kiré" means "cut" in English, and it is used to indicate the sharpness of the finish. A good finish is one of the highly sought out qualities in a good saké, and quite a few breweries that boast their clean and sharp "kiré" incorporate "Masamuné" into their name (Kiku Masamune, Daruma Masamune, Yamagata Masamune, to name a few), in homage of the great swordsmith and the sword bearing his name. In the case of Sakura Masamuné, the founder also recognized that the alternate pronunciation of "Masamuné" in Kanji is "seishu," meaning clear saké.

Sakura Masamuné "Kinmaré" Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.5, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 60%, Yeast: N/A) is made with the king of sakamai (saké rice) Yamadanishiki from highly regarded Yoshikawa area, using the famed Miyamizu water. In short, this is a saké made with the best rice and best water.

The nose had a very pleasant yet restrained sweetness of the rice and grain, followed by a relatively intense flavor that can best described as mildly fruity/grainy. While the traditional- styled flavor by itself was not awe-inspiring, combination with the tactile sensation that evolved in the mouth was simply phenomenal. The flavor initially showed depth and sweetness before slowly evolving to a firmness leading to the finish. The finish was sharp, with lasting umami leaving a hint of thirst that begged to be quenched.

While the bottle of this Junmai Ginjo was on a encroaching into the Daiginjo territory at $42, it is very well worth every penny. I would certainly buy this again.

Monday, February 12, 2007

2/8/07: Tasting Notes on Namazakés

January and February is a very slow time of the year for saké-related activities, as brewers are busy making sakés back home, and there aren't (m)any tasting events on this side of the big pond we call the Pacific. As a result, we often have to invent our own fun at this time of the year.

But, like an early blooming plant, we see signs of new life in the form of spring-release namazakés. As a part of my job, I was able to try three namazakés just released on the U.S. market. Here are my tasting notes (some coverage of 2006 are available in the first entry here):

* I was very pleased to discover that Shutendouji "Oo-oni" Nama Genshu (SMV: +2, Acidity: 1.8, Rice: Gohyakumangoku, Seimaibuai: 60%, Yeast: N/A) from Hakurei Brewery located in the ancienty city of Kyoto, is now widely available in the U.S. It's full of ripe tropical fruits and underlying flavors of rice, with a long dry finish. Of the three, this seemed to be the driest saké thanks to it being undiluted, despite its relatively low SMV.

* Harushika Harushika "Shiboribana" Junmai Ginjo Namazaké (SMV: +5, Acidity: N/A, Rice: Gohyakumangoku, Seimaibuai: 60%, Yeast: N/A) from Nara Prefecture was fruitier and riper with hints of sugar than Shutendouji, but not surprising considering it is a Junmai Ginjo grade. Although the finish was firm and dry, it did taste a tad less dry than the +5 rating would indicate. Overall, it is a very well balanced saké, and for $24 a bottle, it is a bargain.

* Kamikokoro Toukagen Tokubetsu Junmai Namazak (SMV: -10, Acidity: 1.3, Rice: Nihonbare, Seimaibuai: 58%, Yeast: from Peach). For some reasons that continue to mystify this author for two years running, Kamikokoro Brewery (Japanese-only site) decided that it is a wonderful idea to make a sweet namazaké as indicated by the whopping -10 on SMV. (Note: the U.S. release has a shocking pink lettering, you can't miss it!) The nose sart with cotton candy, and deep initial sweetness slowly evolves to flavors of ripe peach with a long sweet finish. However, with each suceeding sip, the sweetness seems to overtake the flavors of the fruit. Although this is not the ideal flavor profile I seek in a saké, I can see how this could be popular. Perhaps the blame, ahem, credit for this continuation of sweetness goes to the successful sales...

This is just the beginning, as we expect the usual suspects (Masumi, Kaika, Otokoyama, Gokyo, among others) are sure to hit the market. Like wines, sakés are affected by vintages (see KAmikokoro from 2005 vs 2006), so I look forward to see how this year's batch compares from the years past.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

1/29/07: Dinner at EN Japanese Brasserie

This Monday evening was not just your typical dinner out, as I had an appointment with Mr. Sakurai from Asahi Shuzo, someone who seems to show up in this blog quite often as evidenced here (scroll down to the second entry), here (scroll down to the second entry... again), here (you know what to do), most certainly here, was in attendance here, served me some saké at this event, was't in town for this event unfortunately, but did help pioneered a new dessert for this very noble cause, and explored Andromeda terroir saké this night. Unfortunately, he was in town briefly for a week, so this would be the only time I could meet him on this visit. Fear not, he will be back late February for a month and half stay.

He recommended having dinner at EN Japanese Brasserie, where they hosted a portfolio of Banzai Saké the last time I visited in September.

Since I arrived before Sakurai-san, I sat at the bar to check their saké by the glass menu. The menu offered decent selections covering wide range of styles, but of course, was no match for the beverage menu inside the restaurant. I ordered a glass of Sougen Junmai (SMV: +3, Acidity: 1.8, Rice: Yamadanishiki, Seimaibuai: 55%, Yeast: N/A) from Ishikawa Prefecture, a saké I have seen but never tried before. Sougen turned out to be a pretty intense saké, with fruit/rice on nose and expressive, sharp fruity flavors on the palate with a lingering minerals on the finish. I thought this was very similar to Ryusei Tokubetsu Junmai from Hiroshima.

Once Sakurai-san arrived, we headed to the main section of the restaurant. EN has a very minimalistic, yet effective decor. The stone influenced room is rectangular in shape, with private tables on the sides and one big communal table in the middle, with a big centerpiece in the middle, offering both enough glimpse at neighboring diner's dishes while maintaining privacy.

To start the evening, Mr. Sakurai ordered his pride and joy, the bottle of Migaki Niwari Sanbu. With the restaurant featuring special menu in the honor of the NYC Restaurant Week, we decided to order that Tasting Menu as well as several appetizers including Yuba (tofu skin) Sashimi, raw oysters with tobiko, and of course, my favoirte, boiled daikon with miso sauce, the braised pork "kakuni." The tasting course started with three styles of assorted Napoleon, but the highlight was the parchment paper steamed Chilian sea bass.

Dassai went very well with most of the dishes. I was surprised that it went well with daikon and miso, as I figured miso might overpower the saké, but the miso was exceptionally round and mild, making me believe that they added some white miso. The sea bass was moist and tender, making it a perfect accompaniment.

As the night wound down, and bottle became empty, it was time for a last round. Sakurai-san went with Bishonen, while I went with what I perceive as the best choice by glass: Biho from Hiroshima.

While the finer details of the evening cannot be stated yet, it was a great night. I learned quite a bit about Sakurai-san's work overseas, including his recent visit to Hong Kong, which sounds like an incredibly profitable venture. I also got to see my former coworker Courtney, and I was also introduced to the manager of the restaurant. It was definitely great coming back to EN, and I hope to be back soon!