In many Japanese restaurants these days, you'll witness a dramatic revolution. You may not notice it the minute you walk in and sit down because it's not taking place behind the sushi bar or even in the kitchen.
It's in the sake cup. After years of coming to the table hot, Japan's traditional beverage is being served cold--sometimes straight from the refrigerator.
Chilled top-quality sakes are showing up at other places too: at non-Asian restaurants that take pride in their wine selections and at multi-course dinners that match particular sakes to particular dishes--both western and Japanese.
"Sake is like fine wine," says Roger Dagorn, the master sommelier at Chanterelle in Manhattan, who selected the sakes for a special dinner at the Japanese Embassy in Washington that centered around the traditional drink. "It can lose its nuances if it's heated. Warming sake masks or mutes its aroma.
"Our sense of smell is a lot more intense than our sense of taste," he explains. "We can taste what's dry or sweet or bitter or tart, but we can smell thousands of different components."
An increasing interest in sake was almost inevitable--look what's happened to the American palate: In restaurants as well as at neighborhood ethnic spots, Asian foods and flavors have become more mainstream. In supermarkets it's no longer a surprise to find Asian spices, sauces and frozen foods--even sushi. At liquor stores, sake fits right in with the American fondness for white spirits--gin, vodka or the boomer favorites white wine and tequila. Sake is less alcoholic too--15 percent to 20 percent alcohol content compared with about 40 percent in the United States for spirits. Besides, in circles in which the knowledge of single malt scotches and fine tequilas has become old hat, there's a challenge in becoming a connoisseur of premium sakes.
Rice at the Start
For the uninitiated--and that's most of us--a brief guide:
Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from polished rice and water. Japan's traditional brewed beverage, sake is thought to be at least 2,000 years old.
At first, sake production was destined for the imperial court, or for large temples and shrines. Over time, production--and the sake habit--spread. And nowadays, sake drinking celebrates all kinds of occasions--weddings, births, seasonal holidays, groundbreakings.
A staple in Japanese and pan-Asian restaurants, sake became better known in America after World War II. But the sakes available then weren't the premium and super-premium sakes of today. During the war, rice was in short supply and sake production was cut back. Eventually brewer's alcohol and glucose were added to the fermenting mash, enlarging the yield and lowering its quality. The subtleties of different sakes at that point weren't an issue, and even the Japanese drank it warmed. Heating it, after all, helped and still helps lesser sakes, smoothing over their rough spots. (To make matters more confusing, some fine sakes are meant to be warmed.)
"There is still plenty of sake like that today," says John Gauntner, author of "The Sake Handbook" (Yenbooks, 1997) and sake columnist for the Japan Times.
But in the past 20 years, with the resurgence of small artisanal breweries in Japan, and a consumer society to purchase it, traditional handmade premium and super-premium sake has reemerged. There are now about 1,700 sake breweries in Japan, according to Gauntner's excellent Web site (www.sake-world.com)--all different kinds and levels--some of such limited production that the sake never leaves Japan. In the past few years, a growing market has developed for premium and super-premium sakes. And a growing number of sake sophisticates would no sooner heat these sakes than they would heat sauvignon blanc or chardonnay. "Warming today's premium sake . . . would bludgeon away the very qualities it was brewed to exude," says Gauntner.
The experience of Kunihiko Saito, the Japanese ambassador to the United States, who until recent years customarily drank his sake warm, reflects the sake development during the decades since World War II. "As the quality of our life improved, people started to want delicate taste and variety," he says. "I started to try different kinds prepared by the smaller breweries, which ask you to drink it cold."
He still warms sake for guests, if they prefer it that way, but he now agrees some of the flavor may be lost in the process.
Sake in America
Many different kinds of sakes are imported to the U.S. these days, from ordinary ones (think jug wine) to super-premiums. And the less fine ones are usually served warm, both here and in Japan.
The difference between premium and super-premium sakes and mass-produced ones has to do with the way the beverage is made. Very generally speaking, grains of rice are polished to remove the bran and the outer solids of the rice. The remaining starch is then converted into alcohol through the work of yeast enzymes.
The more the rice is polished, the finer the flavor of the sake. Super-premium sakes, a category known as daiginjoshu, are made from rice that's been polished to remove 50 percent or more of the outside. Premium sakes (ginjoshu) include those polished to remove roughly 40 percent of the outside and regular ones (junmaishu) remove roughly 30 percent.
Sales for all three categories in this country are up: About 15 percent over last year for junmaishu, according to Kazuhide Yamazaki, consultant at the Japan Prestige Sake Association in New York; and 50 percent for ginjoshu and daiginjoshu. "People are really getting into premium or super-premium because of its high aroma," he says. "They love the gorgeousness of the taste and the fruity aroma--it's just like wine."
Yamazaki likes them too--chilled, of course. If he's eating, he'll opt for a junmaishu, but if he's enjoying a sake on its own, he prefers the super-premium brands, a range of sakes that can cost anywhere, he estimates, from $25 to $115. Apparently, so does the segment of the American public that's pushing up the consumption of the really good stuff. "People here trust the expensive price," he says.
In the Washington area, there's a growing availability of premium and super-premium brands, at restaurants including Kaz Sushi Bistro, Raku, Yanyu, Zuki Moon Noodles, Matuba and Tachibana (see box, below).
Are American diners ready for chilled, premium sakes with their meals? It's hard enough to master some basic wine and food matches. But sake? That's really tough. The terminology is unfamiliar, the labels are often in Japanese, and, even when they're in English, they're impossible to pronounce with any confidence.
How do restaurants deal with them? A variety of ways: Some servers are trained to help customers make sake and food matches just as they would with wine, and to explain that premium sakes are served chilled. Some sake lists provide characteristic descriptions. Many restaurants also offer small serving sizes to match with foods--whether Japanese, American or European.
Some places go further. Kazuhiro Okochi, chef-owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro on I Street, has held tastings to introduce fine sakes. "Not very many people understand unless they are regular customers or have been drinking sake in Japan," he says. At New York City's Chanterelle, master sommelier Dagorn matches chilled sakes to some of the courses on the restaurant's six-course tasting menu. "Sake has become much more mainstream," he says. "You don't have to pair it with raw fish and sushi. It can go with western cuisine too--not with everything, but it does work with certain lighter dishes."
Nobody's throwing out his wine lists, but the rise in sake sales indicates approval. "There's increasing interest," says Okochi. "And more and more people are drinking sake cold."
Of course, it depends on the clientele too. At Zuki Moon Noodles in Foggy Bottom, which has a large Kennedy Center clientele, chef-owner Mary Richter finds that most of the customers who order sake expect it to be chilled. "They tend to be more sophisticated," she says. They've been to Japan or they dine out frequently. They know."
As for learning to like the taste, apparently, that's not a problem. "You don't have to know anything about sake," says Ambassador Saito. "You can just simply enjoy it."
Who's Serving Sake?
Looking for chilled premium and super-premium sakes? Try these restaurants for starters. But remember, you're not going to find elaborate sake cellars: sake is more like beer than wine--it doesn't hold well. And selections vary according to availability.
ASIA NORA, 2213 M St. NW, call 202-797-4860
KAWASAKI, 1140 19th St. NW, call 202-466-3798
KAZ SUSHI BISTRO, 1915 I St. NW, call 202-530-5500
MAKOTO, 4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW, call 202-298-6866
MATUBA, 2915 Columbia Pike, Arlington, call 703-521-2811 or 4918 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, call 301-652-7449
OFF THE RECORD, Hay Adams Hotel, 800 16th St. NW, call 202-638-2570
RAKU, 1900 Q St. NW, call 202-265-7258; 7240 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, call 301-718-8680
SUSHI-KO, 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW, call 202-333-4187
TACHIBANA, 6715 Lowell Ave., McLean, call 703-847-1771
TAKO GRILL, 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, call 301-652-7030
YANYU, 3435 Connecticut Ave. NW, call 202-686-6968
ZUKI MOON NOODLES, 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW, call 202-333-3312