… and here it is.
A question for @beefnoguy: What is your take on draft sake? It’s a relatively new trend here in L.A. And I don’t recall seeing it much in Japan (or maybe I’m going to the wrong izakayas)…
@J_L: In short: it’s definitely an area worth exploring (assuming you mean nama sake (unpasteurized), and nama zume (single pasteurized). And yes it can be really fun! I understand that access to this type is a bit more challenging in LA, but let me see if there are places you can try them in the area and with what. A lot more on that later.
Thanks for the great recommendations again @beefnoguy.
I’ll definitely keep the Fukucho Junmai Ginjo in mind, and the Nanago. I was eyeing the Nanago, but we went with the sommelier’s recs. It sounds very interesting.
@J_L: Longer answer
There is a whole fun new world out there of unpasteurized/single pasteurized sake! In the fall many breweries release their draft sake (almost always single pasteurized) which are called Hiyaroshi, and around Feb/March is when you see the release of some nama sake (non pasteurized).
Some say these are the original flavors of sake, particularly the non pasteurized. Even better if the nama sake is muroka (unfiltered, many filtered sakes are done so with charcoal), and most of the time is also undiluted (genshu). So if you get a nama that also says muroka nama genshu, it’s as pure as it gets. Then there are differing rice polish grades (ie Junmai, Junmai Ginjo, Junmai Daiginjo), with brewers in different geographical locations using different water and techniques to create interesting combinations.
They recommend you drink most of these right away for best results, and of course ideally keep them in the refrigerator.
There are fanatics out there (not many) that experiment with sake and aging, and even try to age nama’s for fun and trying out the results, but unless you are really dedicated and passionate about this, don’t mess around and just enjoy it right away.
Rightfully chilled nama sake are excellent and refreshing to enjoy during the hot summer months. The perfect no brainer sake. I’ve actually tasted this Ginjo Nama Genshu straight out of the freezer when it turned into slush (more like a sake slurpee). Super good and fun
And then you have places like Narisawa in Tokyo…did a sake pairing there and was served a nama that was lukewarm which worked incredibly well with the dish at the moment. Very out of the box.
One of the best high performance nama’s out there is Kakeya which I wrote about here
Kinjiro charges a somewhat reasonable $75 a bottle, it’s worth trying it there with the food. They also supposedly stock the Dewazakura Dewasansan Junmai Ginjo nama, which might also be worth trying if that’s still available.
And of course the Born Junmai Daiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu (blue bottle) with the sticker that says “umami” in Japanese, at least we can find that easily here in Northern California Nijiya supermarkets. But I think Kakeya’s umami blows it out of the water (also Kakeya is more ricey).
Then of course there’s True Sake and you can mail order them as well.
At Raku, there’s Akishika Muroka Nama Genshu (500 mL only) which is ridiculously dry on the scale (SMV +18, Izumi Judan’s SMV is 10) and should be great with their food offerings. Amabuki Strawberry Yeast Nama is another fun one to try. Both of these are Junmai Ginjo.
In general, most nama sake are fail safe with izakaya fare and yakitori. Nama zume probably go better with sushi and otsumami (and sake friendly food).
I’m sure you have heard of the legendary sake brewery Juyondai 十四代. A large percentage of their Junmai Daiginjo lineup are all single pasteurized/nama zume.
How can I forget…Tedorikawa Kinka (nama Daiginjo), perfect with the food at Aburiya Raku.
Nama sake has a much richer mouthfeel, more viscosity and what some sake somms would say “chew” than double pasteurized sake, and acidity/tartness/brightness/sweetness that you get at some moments of drinking something like Yakult. Some single pasteurized sake have similar textures and profiles to that, though I’m not at the level where I can tell from a blind tasting what is nama what is single pasteurized a lot of the times.
For those visiting San Francisco and have time on Saturdays, check out Sequoia https://sequoiasake.com/
a local sake brewer that specializes in nama sake when they open up their tasting room. Some of the SF Bay Area restaurants listed offer the draft sake and go surprisingly well with izakaya style food and ramen. If you catch one of their events, you might even get the chance to do a pairing with chocolate. I haven’t tried everything, but the Junmai Genshu is remarkably good (of course don’t compare to Kakeya)…the label has a doe/female deer on the label (each animal representing a different item in the lineup, there’s also a rooster and a bunny)…so just remember, Bambi, is the one to try (unless you like nigori, then by all means give the others a shot too).
Having been a solid half year, we wanted to see how Tsubaki was faring from its opening days. We were hoping things might improve…
Worst case, even if the food was about the same (from Chef-Owner Charles Namba (EN Japanese Brasserie, Chanterelle in New York, and Bouchon (Beverly Hills)), at least we knew we’d have a chance to explore some great Sake (and unusual picks) due to Sommelier-Owner Courtney Kaplan (Decibel (New York), Domaine LA, Bestia), who wowed us with some great recommendations on our 1st visit.
Seikyo - Omachi - Junmai Ginjo Namazake (Hiroshima, Japan):
This was a real treat: Sommelier Kaplan started us off with Seikyo Omachi, a Junmai Ginjo Namazake (unpasteurized Sake). This was only the 2nd time we had ever had a Junmai Ginjo unpasteurized before, and this was fantastic! Natural fruit notes (some melon-like qualities), almost sweet on the tongue, and nice and round. And it finished pretty clean & dry(!). One of the highlights of the evening.
Nasu Nibitashi (Japanese Eggplant, Myoga Ginger):
This was OK. The Eggplant was cooked to a nice tender, silky consistency, it was clean, not overly oily. However, it just tasted rather one note (sweet-savory).
Isojiman - Junmai Ginjo Sake (Shizuoka, Japan):
This was a nice progression and paired well with the 2 dishes that arrived at this time. This was the dryest and smoothest Sake of the evening.
Kinoko Kombu-Mushi (Forest Mushrooms, Garlic Oil, Katsuo Butter, Mitsuba):
This was much better. Perfectly sauteed Mushroom mix, fragrant from the Garlic and Butter, but we didn’t really taste any Katsuo or Mitsuba. Still, quite tasty.
Sogen - Junmai Sake (Ishikawa, Japan):
This had a bit of a long alcohol burn / finish. It was still an interesting Sake to explore, a lot fuller and bigger than the previous 2 Sake.
One sad note @beefnoguy and others interested in Sake, is that the Sake Menu has drastically changed since our last visit. There’s only 1 Junmai Daiginjo Sake left on the menu, and the vast majority of Sake (80 - 90%) is just Junmai or Honjozo (with some Nama and Nigori). Looking at the crowd and the tables, we noted not a single table ordered Sake (just Tea / Ice Tea, a couple tables had Beer).
Sakura Masu Yaki (Binchotan-Grilled Cherry Trout & Tokyo Scallions, Shishito Peppers):
There was a nice smokiness to the Sakura Masu, however, it was a touch overcooked. Flavor-wise, it was fine, but nothing really wow-inducing.
Shichida - 75 - Junmai Sake (Saga, Japan):
While we thoroughly enjoyed the stunning Limited Edition Shichida Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo we had at Izakaya Ginji (it was amazing! Thanks again @beefnoguy), Tsubaki only had the Shichida 75, but it was recommended by Sommelier Kaplan, so we gave it a shot.
The Shichida 75 is vastly different than their Limited Edition Muroka Nama Junmai Ginjo: It’s a bit rougher, a noticeable long tail finish, and just not as wild and interesting as the Muroka. But it was still a solid Sake and paired well with our dishes.
Tako (Binchotan-Grilled Octopus & Tokyo Scallions, Shishito Peppers, Aioli) +
Kamo Shoga-Yaki (Ginger Grilled Duck, Garlic Oil):
The Duck Skewer (Chef Namba’s attempt at Yakitori / Kushiyaki) was… no bueno. The Duck was overcooked, chewy, and dried out. The flavor tasted kind of straightforward (like some Duck meat cooked over Charcoal), with very little additional seasonal or flavor profile.
The Octopus was fantastic! Perfectly cooked, tender, smoky, a light, inherent brininess. Probably our favorite dish of the evening.
Sempuku - Shinriki - Muroka Genshu Kimoto - Junmai Sake (Hiroshima, Japan):
Sommelier Kaplan mentions that this is milled to 85%, and according to the brewer is made with a rarer Shinriki Sake Rice grain. This was definitely another bolder Sake, maybe even earthy.
Looking at the Dessert Menu… we decided to trust our instincts and tried this for Dessert instead.
Hanahato - Junmai Kijoshu (8 Year Aged Sake(!)) (Hiroshima, Japan):
I had never tried any 8 Year Aged Sake before, so we were excited to see what this was about. Sommelier Kaplan did note to us that this was more like a Dessert Wine, than a standard “Sake” that one might think about.
It was a stark, dark color, and taking a sip… it was really familiar… I kept wracking my brain but then remembered what this reminded me of: Taiwanese Shaoshing Wine.
I had a good friend in college (who was from Taipei), and she introduced me to Shaoshing Wine. This tasted like a more refined version of that.
So after 6 months, Tsubaki remains about the same as our last visit: Decent-to-Solid Japanese Tapas plates, but tasting like a new interpretation of the classics (with the chef’s pedigree from Bouchon), with the star being the interesting Sake Menu (and off-menu selections) that Sommelier Courtney Kaplan has constructed.
It is a true delight and interesting to hear her introduce and discuss various Sake being offered, with some unique tastes and standouts in each of our visits.
But looking around this evening, as noted above, not a single table had ordered Sake except for us (it was filled with the local hamster clientele), and with the Sake Menu changes since our last visit, it feels like the very highlight of the place is being overlooked and underappreciated.
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What a shame about the food! Reminds me of looking at some of the later visit pictures of Shibumi.
Though it’s cool to have a sake somm (or someone very knowledgeable about sake and ordering) at a restaurant, it does enhance the overall experience.
In terms of the sake, what you had was a very good selection that matches well with a variety of cooked food and grilled dishes. So by that token alone, and given the fact that most of the food was overall mediocre with a few exceptions, it would have been wasteful to have Junmai Daiginjo with (which usually goes better with top notch sushi, upscale French style, fresh shellfish, or kaiseki e.g. your bottle of Tsukinokatsura Heiyankyo Junmai Daiginjo you had at Shunji). Actually most sake professionals and sake somms, if you ask what they really really like to drink on a regular basis, often it would be something more simple (and robust) like a Junmai, Ginjo, or Junmai Ginjo, as these can pair with a far wider range of food, and can still be very enjoyable (and sometimes pair better) with sushi, American sushi rolls, and yakitori, izakaya type fare, as well as other cuisines e.g. Mexican, Chinese, Korean etc.
I finally tried the Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai last week that you got on your first to Tsubaki, really enjoyed it. It’s so well structured and full bodied, with a crisp acidity/tartness, dryness, and that aroma and profile that those who are not used to it tend to call it “funk” (mostly as a result of the brewing process, involving natural and slow buildup of lactic acid from the traditional Yamahai method). Kikuhime is from Ishikawa prefecture, also famous for a lot of bold and sometimes funky Yamahai sake, as is Sogen. I don’t believe the Sogen Junmai you had is brewed with Yamahai technique but it has that higher acidity level characteristic, which may trick you into thinking it is a more dry (and a bit coarse) on the finish, and perhaps leading you to think of it as alcoholic burn. This is also a trait that quite a lot of sake lovers particularly enjoy in Japan, as well as those in the industry, though beginning drinkers may find it far too harsh. Tedorigawa, famous for being featured on the The Birth of Sake, is also from Ishikawa prefecture, though their sake, despite employing traditional methods, are more well rounded and balanced in comparison for wider appeal.
Sogen I really do like a lot, and it’s one of several staple Junmai at Izakaya Ginji (San Mateo) that tastes so good with the food there.
Isojiman is from Shizuoka Prefecture and is very sought after in Japan. Many have said that the exported to the US versions are sub-par to what you can get in Japan (also entirely possible they brew separately for US versions). I’ve tasted this same exported Junmai Ginjo a year ago, but don’t remember too much about it (and was not terribly impressed at the time). I did have a different Isojiman Junmai Ginjo in Tokyo at a tempura restaurant and it was good. The higher end Isojiman bottles in Japan are very expensive and exquisite (e.g. the Daiginjo lineup), one of them was apparently served at one of the G7 or G8 summits a few years back. But regardless, this Isojiman isn’t easy to come by so it’s good you got to try it (and at least you enjoyed it).
Thanks @beefnoguy. Yah, definitely unfortunate about the food. The Sake has been great, though.
Glad you liked the Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai! And thanks for the note about the Sogen… perhaps that might’ve been it (about the slight harshness).
I’ll keep an eye out for Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo lineup, thanks!