Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

Notes on Sake: New York, Tokyo, Hiroshima

The bar at Saikai.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz

An article I wrote on the growing sake scene in New York City appeared this week in the drinks issue of Edible Manhattan, which, confusingly enough, contains stuff about Brooklyn, too.  In it, I describe how the rice beverage from Japan is enjoying an unprecedented surge in quality, refinement and experimentation.

I happen to be in Japan now, on a sake brewery tour of the Fukuoka region of Kyushu island, and will tell you more about that. Firtst, though, I'll  mention a few sake-serving establishments in Manhattan that didn't make it into my last article. All of them are on the Lower East Side, which must mean I need to get down there more often. There's Sakamai, on Ludlow Street, though the sake there is not the only star on the drinks menu; it's got serious competition from the dazzling cocktails of bartender Shingo Gokan. A few other places come via one of my sake brewery tourmates, Vancouver sake educator Elise Gee. She loves Azasu and its sister restaurant Yopparai (which means "drunk" or "drunkard" in Japanese), so I'll be checking those out soon.

Saikai chefs Xiao Lin, left, and Wing Chen, right.
Photo: Paul Wagtouicz
In the West Village, at Saikai Dining Bar, Masa alumni Wing Cheng and Xiao Lin offer their elevated version of pub or izakaya-style cuisine. Saikai's beverage list, the work of general manager Paul Lee (also formerly of Masa), is similarly impressive. Since chefs Cheng and Lin change up their menu often, Lee ends up rotating his beverage selection frequently.

This means that the sakes on offer at Saikai exceed the 25-label published list. You might want to inquire about several premium junmai daiginjos: the aged sake Yume wa Masayume, the gently fruity Miyosakae Tenmi, and the elegant Niigata Prefecture sakes Kubota Senshin and Kikusui Kuramitsu. Come spring, says Lee,  Dashichi brewery's Houreki, a limited production kimoto style junmai from Fukushima that's richer and earthier than daiginjo sakes, will return to the list. For those who look for bottles bestowed with awards, this is the only kimoto-style junmai to have won gold in the Japanese Brewing Society's national competition.

For Valentine's Day, Sakai will be offering a special six-course, $80 menu, $120 with sake pairings. While the menu may change slightly since the chefs never stop tweaking it, they are sure that the theme of the dinner will be the ocean's bounty. You can expect Kumamoto oysters (which, I was told as we drove through Kumamoto Prefecture today, came from there ages ago but now has no connection to the region), a seafood sashimi selection, a seasonal, truffle-enhanced Japanese grilled fish, live king crab legs with yuzu whipped cream, and a lobster pasta with saffron sauce.

The charming and adorable Marie Chiba
at Nihonshu Moto, Tokyo

At Koishi Sake Bar in Hiroshima,
 Imada Shuzo's Fukucho junmai ginjo.

I have to mention two great sake bars I've visited on this trip, Nihonshu Stand Moto in Tokyo, which was recommended to me by Rick Smith of the East Village sake shop Sakaya, and Koishi (Pebble) Sake Bar in Hiroshima, the sake maker Miho Imada of local brewery Imada Shuzo likes. The first is a tiny yet polished bar that is standing room only, and the second a larger two-story establishment with a cozy bar on the lower level. Both are real and pressing reasons to want to return to Japan.

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