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Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Sushi chefs preparing plates at Zentan.

March 3rd at Zentan restaurant in Washington, D.C., Trevor Corson (a native of the D.C. area and author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi) gave the first in a planned series of “sushi concierge” presentations. He hopes to come down to D.C. whenever he can book enough people for his sushi talks. I, of course, was lured out by the promise of sake, hoping to score something new.

While I was waiting at the bar for the event to start, I tried some Wakatake junmai daiginjo: sweet, smooth, fruity, but I had a hankering for something a little more fleshy that evening. The Zentan sake list discombobulated me. Several of the sakes are only listed by their English translations rather than their Japanese names. Thus, Ama no To is listed as simply “Heaven’s Door.” The English translations are nice to have, but why no Japanese transliteration? I was completely unmoored by these de-Nipponized sake names with no brewery listings. I’m praying this is not the wave of the future.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Three selected sakes of the evening.

Corson’s presentation was designed to help one experience throwback sushi, that is, the more classic fish, rather than the common American style of sushi. As he put it, “Hey, I happen to like California rolls, but I think we should search out a fuller experience.” He specifically excluded salmon and bluefin tuna from the evening’s menu because they are not “traditional,” and wanted to focus on white and silvery fish and shellfish. Whether or not we need to buy into the concept of historical sushi fish versus modern fish, he makes a sound plea for diversity in sushi eating.

Nothing in his lecture was particularly earthshaking, but his focus on expanding the repertoire of sushi in America is admirable. He’s trying to get Americans to eat less appreciated fish that sushi chefs want to serve in the States but can’t get their customers to order. Thus, he emphasized that one should concentrate on texture from shellfish and the more subtle flavors of certain fish rather the “obvious” fatty and simplistic tuna belly, salmon, and unagi. Bluefin tuna should be off the menu for many obvious environmental reasons, but I like Corson’s manner of selling species diversity as evidence of diner sophistication. Will America buy it? Probably not, but it’s a worthy message.

We were served what is apparently the Zentan signature dish, Singapore slaw, which at first has some nice flavors and textures with hazelnuts and fresh radish and crispy rice noodles. Then it gets soggy and makes one think of July 4th party leftovers. The first of three sakes was Ame no To (Heaven’s Door) tokubetsu junmai. This is an old friend of mine from Japan, with that delightful crisp and ricey palate. Good stuff, and not hard to find in the States. In fact, all three sakes of the evening were Vine Connections imports. Corson declined to comment much about the sakes, saying he doesn’t have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. Disappointing, I wonder if he needs a lecture partner?

Round one of some well-made nigiri sushi: kanpachi with yuzu garnish, ocean trout with California caviar, madai with umeboshi, sweet shrimp with salmon roe and deep fried shrimp heads (particularly yummy), anago (sea eel) with the standard eel sauce.

Corson moved on to some well-known etiquette issues: Americans need to stop insulting sushi chefs by rubbing their wooden chopsticks together before eating (something I’ve always found bizarre). Later in the evening when he stopped by our table, I offered him my theory that some people feel the need to “remove splinters” because they are tightly (and incorrectly) pressing their lips against the chopsticks as they pull them out of their mouths (like a person eating chocolate cake with a fork).

He also counseled against pouring copious amounts of soy sauce, making a wasabi slurry, and sloshing away with the fish. As he put it, sushi chefs have told him when they see this they ensure that customer is “off the best fish list for the night.” Again, the choir says, Amen Brother.

He made an interesting point about how tightly sushi rice is packed for nigiri in the United States and that one way to get your sushi chef to regard you as good fish—worthy (the secret stash under the counter) is to ask for a looser pack on the rice. In this case, you’d eat the sushi with your fingers, something he encourages.

Corson confirmed a suspicion I had that sushi chefs in the States were preparing very sweet sushi rice compared with the sushi rice in Japan (even allowing for Kansai/Kanto variations). He said Japanese sushi chefs learn quickly that sweeter rice sells more sushi because it pleases the “American palate.” There’s mention of the American palate again! Someone please wash out America’s mouth with soap.

Sushi round two: sea scallop, horse mackerel with ginger and scallions, flounder with chili daikon, and ye olde bara zushi of mackerel and kelp.  Sake two: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai. More about that below.

Lecture concluded, Corson visited all the tables to answer questions, and miso soup was offered tragically in a lipped bowl with stainless steel spoons. I stared at the bowl on the table and held the spoon above it wondering what was wrong. Then I realized that so much of the enjoyment of miso soup is bringing the bowl up close to the face, appreciating the aromas, and sipping from a warm lacquer (ok faux-lacquer plastic) bowl. With Western-style etiquette plus a wide lip on the bowl keeping it anchored to the table and the feel of the cold, stainless steel soup spoon, the miso soup lost all its allure. I left it.

The Tozai ginjo nigori (Voices in the Mist) served with dessert was crisp and not as cloudy as many nigoris. Very nice, and I am hard on nigori sake. Dessert was an enjoyable, modern almond panna cotta with pineapple raspberry ravioli and passionfriut sauce.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai.

I played nice with our waiter and he brought me a free second glass of the Tentaka Kuni. I may have to revisit this one for the interesting bitter nutty taste with a widely spreading palate. Intriguing. Has some warming potential but was served cold that evening.

See Trevor Corson’s Sushi Concierge site for more about these lectures in D.C. and New York. He admits that his standard lecture must be aimed at sushi newbies. A private lecture (you must have at least 6) might be better for people who want to delve deeper.

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Momokawa Diamond
Photo: Momokawa from SakéOne, Oregon-made sake.

I first tasted sake, like most Americans, in Japanese restaurants which served standard Japanese restaurant sake. I drank it, as they served it to me, partially boiled to death and I thought it grand. After those early sake experiences in college, I lived in Japan on two separate occasions, most recently from 2005 to 2008. I had a chance to educate my palate a bit.

The great stuff, Japanese artisan-made sake, inspires a delightful awe and a reverence for craft. That frank delight in the drink is reflected in the missionary work of people like John Gauntner (see Sake World), Beau Timkin at True Sake, and in some of the blogs I list at the left of this page, Tokyofoodcast and Jumanai Djimi Django, among others. The great sakes can encompass a wide range of styles and flavors, but they all are exciting, thought-provoking, and create good cheer.

I had previously written here about how expensive sake is in the United States, compared with prices in Japan. I knew there were American-made sakes that were much less expensive. So I bought a bottle of this $12 Momokawa with a touch of hope. Would I find a delicious inexpensive sake? Can they make good sake in America?

For me, the Diamond was a startling disappointment. The nose was a bit gluey with some fruit, like funky cantaloupe. This got me excited at first because a cantaloupe nose is something that does appear in many great sakes. But then the texture on the palate was flat, with no brightness or complexity (and it didn’t improve on subsequent tastings). It disappears off the tongue with a note of sweet and sour alcohol. It has the body and underpinnings of good sake, such that one can tell it was made with love and some craft. I just don’t think it’s the best expression of what sake can be.

A comment from Greg Lorenz, the SakéOne brewer, makes me wonder if my expecting a Japanese style in American sake is skewing my tasting:

“We represent the American taste bud,” said Greg Lorenz, who is responsible for the production of the sake. He studied sake brewing with SakéOne’s Japanese business partner, Momokawa Brewing, but uses his own inventive style to produce American sake.

“I grew up on burgers and fries, not sushi and rice, so we’re going to make choices that seem appropriate based on our background,” he said.

I’m going to have to taste more. I’ll try more SakéOne products, in particular the g-sake and the Momokawa Silver. Perhaps make a trip out to Minnesota to see a friend and to try moto-i, the sake brewery-restaurant. I’ll take recommendations…

ETA: See the post on the second tasting of Momokawa Diamond and a new tasting of Momokawa Silver thanks to SakéOne.

Tsukinokatsura junmai daiginjo
Photo: Tsukinokatsura “Heiankyo” junmai daiginjo.

I was expecting a great deal from this sake, as I once had an almost religious experience tasting its sister sake, Tsukinokatsura “Yanagi” (Willow) junmai ginjo. The Willow junmai ginjo is also my evangelical sake: when someone at my dinner table claims they don’t like sake, I gently quiz them on what kinds of sake they have tried—ok, so I’m not so gentle, I berate them until they admit they only tried it once and it was that boiled stuff in some Benihana—and then I parade the Willow. Never fails. People sip and murmur: “What? This is sake?” and “I had no idea sake tasted like that.” Then I have a few good slugs myself.

The Willow’s ultra-refined sister, Heian-kyo (Ancient Kyoto) had a lot to live up to. Sakes from Kyoto are known for being soft on the palate, so I wasn’t surprised to find this sake light and silky, with a delicate tropical fruit nose. The silkiness slipped right over my tongue, but after a few moments of enjoyment, the sweet fruit is too insistent for my taste. This sake is so solidly made and has correct attributes for a daiginjo: lovely nose, good complexity, it sips well. But after a few short days with the bottle, I found myself wondering what else I could open.

So, I opened a bottle of the Willow and experienced the fulfillment of a rounder mouthfeel, a bolder but still gentle bite of alcohol, a stronger bamboo-y finish, and the piqued imagination asking for some sashimi or an okara salad. Gah.

Well, the Heian-kyo is a lovely, well made sake, but as I type this I’m drinking the Willow.

————————–
Data, for those who love data:
Underneath the almost useless English sticker that the importer has slapped on the back of the bottle, I can partially make out the Japanese below with all its tantalizing information. Why don’t they translate all the Japanese on the back? I can see the rice was Iwai, a rare sake rice that the brewery, Matsuda-Tokube Shoten, revived a few years ago. I can also see on the Japanese sticker a seimaibuai of 50%.

True sake reports: SMV+0.5, Acidity+1.6
Sakaya NYC has SMV+1, Acidity +1.4, and that they use yeast #9.

Shichihonyari junmai
Photo: Shichihonyari junmai. 60% seimaibuai.

Et-chan and Te-chan at Tokyofoodcast were raving so much about the Shichihonyari 80% nama genshu that my fingers scrambled blindly to the Sakaya Web site to find some. I couldn’t get the nama genshu, so I bought the 60% junmai.

I had intended a multi-day tasting report, allowing the sake to change as it breathed and opened and to try it at different temperatures. Instead the “Seven Spearmen” went down oh-so-easy, tasting of clean fruit and smoky nuttiness, one of those multi-sensory sakes that make you keep sipping to see what else you can find. It was very balanced, not too much smokiness, not too much alcohol bite, a generous mouthfeel without being cloying, a clean and solid sake that is quaffable. I’d like to say more, but it disappeared too quickly.

Keep in mind that at 60% seimaibuai, the brewer could have called this a junmai ginjo. I don’t know why he didn’t, but I do know brewers sometimes reserve the “ginjo” name for a particular flagship brew, even if their junmai meets the standard for ginjo.

There’s fun insider reading in English about the brewer, Tomita Shuzo:

—Of course, our venerable Sake Daddy, John Gauntner, has a chapter about Tomita-san and the brewery in his e-book, Sake’s Hidden Stories.

—Urbansake.com writes about visiting the brewery.

—The Japanese Food Report also has some info about the rice that they use for this sake, Tamazakae.

Tamazakae is indeed a rare sake rice. I found in some notes from John Gauntner’s 2008 Sake Pro course that only about 1% of all sake rice produced is Tamazakae. I’ve read descriptions of this rice refer to qualities such as “musky and herbal” or “herbal and astringent.” The balanced astringency is exactly what I loved about this sake. I’m still looking for which yeast they use…

Tsukasa botan junmai
Photo: 1.8-liter bottle (isshōbin) of Tsukasabotan junmai sake. $49.95 at H-Mart in Falls Church.

A recent Japanese staple supply trip required making an inventory of the pantry, renting a Zipcar for a few hours, and driving to the H-Mart Korean supermarket in Falls Church, Virginia. We loaded up on katsuobushi, saikyo miso, kombu, hot peppers for Carlos, of course some kimchi, and then decided ruefully not to buy a tabletop propane burner to make nabe this winter.

While Carlos was looking at Korean noodle soup packets, I found myself meditating in front of a few shelves of sake and shochu. A few bottles of reasonably drinkable sakes were mixed with the ubiquitous Shochikubai California-made stuff. Ah! A daiginjo, I pull the bottle down and reading the price is like a slap in the face. I put it back. But on the bottom shelf is a 1.8-liter bottle of Tsukasabotan junmai. It’s a big bottle (called a isshōbin in Japanese); a normal bottle of sake is 720 ml, which is slightly smaller than the normal wine bottle of 750 ml. Too much, I think, I can’t drink all this, but the price is good, $49.95. That’s $49.95 for more than two bottles’ worth of this very good brand of sake that I have enjoyed many times in Japan. And the bottle had the shipping date on it, which allowed me to see it was just nearing the end of one year, getting too old for being out on a shelf, but still fresh enough if (if!) it had been handled well.

I’ve written a few times in passing about how drinking sake in Japan used to be my reasonably priced hobby, but sometimes I start doubting my memory of life in Japan. All the places I see in DC that serve sake, for example, SEI, with the slick decor and the slick people drinking sake (or worse, saketinis), why does it often strike me as ludicrous even as I indulge myself? Well, one reason is price. Good sake is just too expensive here and thus it becomes a symbol of conspicuous consumption, rather than something delicious to relax with and enjoy at your local izakaya. I was thinking about this as I cradled that big bottle of Tsukasabotan in my arms.

I decided to get a price check from my friends at Tokyofoodcast. The report back: in Tokyo the same bottle costs ¥2,500 ($27). Yep, it really was reasonably priced in Japan. Not cheap, but not outrageous. Yes, I realize there are inexpensive California-made sakes out there, but I’m referring to a certain premium grade of Japanese-made sake, sake made by real craftsmen that I think is worth the effort and cost to buy. To test this, in the future I may do some sake tastings of some non-craft style sakes. Nevertheless, I had found a relative bargain in that H-Mart compared with trying to drink sake in a restaurant. Now this is where is gets ugly:

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Kubota kōju tokubetsu junmai. Drank with dinner at Sushi Taro, $70.00

Sushi Taro, bottle of sake, lovely evening out, but $70 for Kubota kōju tokubetsu junmai? Makes me want to tear my hair out. What could this possibly cost in Japan? According to my friends in Tokyo, about ¥1500 ($17). Yes! That’s how I remember it, $15 to $20 gets you a good bottle of sake. In this particular case, some of this is restaurant markup, but in general once a sake has been shipped to and taxed in the United States, the same bottles of sake are at least twice and sometimes three times the price.

My big bottle of Tsukasabotan really was a good deal. I’m going to look carefully at the big isshōbin bottles from now on. But for me to buy sake in this area, I have to schlep out to various markets in Virginia and Maryland. The selection is never great and I can never know how well the sake was treated in the store (too much heat, too much time).

Feeling sort of depressed about the whole issue of sake prices, and not wanting to stop drinking the stuff, I decided to talk to Rick and Hiroko at SakayaNYC.

Box of happiness from Sakaya
Photo: Box of happiness purchased from Sakaya NYC. Six bottles of fantastic sake cost $– well, Madam must have some secrets.

Hiroko cheers me up with some sake talk and tells me she’ll include one old-fashioned sake that can be slightly warmed (another whole post). OK, so this is not a cheap option, but I think their prices are similar to ones I’ve seen in the DC area (which is they probably hover around twice the price in Japan). Sakaya sells sakes that are significantly higher in quality and I was able to pick from among some of the best breweries in Japan. Six bottles of joy in a box. Six tastings to report in the future. Some budgeting to do to keep sake in my life.

By the way, the Tsukasabotan had a full mouthfeel, with a creamy start and sweet-tart aftertaste, the nose was banana with undertones of bamboo. It was getting a little old, I think, but it was delicious. It’s an all-around sake, nothing too out of balance, with enough body to go with food.

ETA: Timothy at UrbanSake.com has a video showing various sake bottle sizes.

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