Dining: In Search of Sake
Or, the curse of the Sake Column
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A funny thing happened on the way to this Dining column. I’ve had restaurants shut down a month or two after I reviewed them. But I’ve never had two shut down while I was still writing the review. I’d eaten first at Sake Street, which had gotten exceptional buzz in its brief two months of existence. It was billed as restaurateur Wes Zane’s sake version of his popular Formaggio wine bars.
I’d liked some things about Sake Street (the gleaming sake carts with their array of Riedel crystal wine glasses, the Korean pork belly tacos, the fact that there was foie gras with the fried rice).
I hadn’t liked other things (the limited sake menu, the sweet entrées that fought with the sake, and the fact that the foie gras was not mixed into the fried rice, but just set on top).
There I sat, trying to capture my aperçus in readable prose, when the news went out over Twitter: no more Sake Street.
I hit dial on my phone. “Wes,” I said. “What happened?”
“Sake Street was my concept, but closing it wasn’t my call,” said Zane. “I didn’t own the restaurant. It still belongs to the owner of the former restaurant, Wasabi Bistro.”
The announced reason: The restaurant had hoped to, but been unable to get, parking in nearby lots.
“From experience I know you have to give a place more than two months,” said Zane. “But, oh, well.”
A shame, I said. Honolulu’s a great sake town. It needs a Sake Street.
“The sake was a hit,” said Zane. “We expected to sell 50 percent sake and 50 percent beer, wine and cocktails. We ended up selling 80 percent sake.”
Zane still owns the name. It’s possible there will be another Sake Street one of these days. “Someplace with more parking,” says Zane.
I hope so.
I’d wanted to write about Sake Street because it seemed to me that Honolulu was suddenly awash with rivers of sake.
The unexpected closing left me high and dry.
I was unhappy right up to the moment Malcolm Leong walked into our meeting place, a sushi bar, with his wife, Nadine. I hadn’t met them before, but I knew it was Malcolm. He had a cooler full of sake.
In 2006, the Leongs took a trip to Japan. “Before that trip,” recalls Malcolm, “I thought sake was just OK, something you drink hot with Japanese food.”
In Japan, they encountered sakes good enough to drink cold. “We couldn’t believe how good they were,” he said. “You couldn’t find a bad one. We came home with bottles.”
Once that supply was finished, finding premium sakes in Honolulu was a chore. Even if a place had sake, a store’s staff wouldn’t be able to describe the flavors.
“When you’re paying $30 to $50, you want to know you’re going to like it.”
The two finally decided to open the first Hawaii retail store devoted only to sake. The Sake Shop is on South King Street, just down the block from Sushi Sasabune, and stocks nearly 150 varieties, all Japanese premium sakes.
Good timing. For decades, premium sakes didn’t make it to Honolulu in any quantity. Our town’s sake maven, Chris Pearce, organized his annual “Joy of Sake” event partly to encourage Japanese sake makers to ship better product to Hawaii.
The annual "Joy of Sake" event has become popular, drawing 1,500 last year, that this year the ticket sales have been limited. Get tickets early. The event is slated for August 19 at the Honolulu Academy of Arts. For information, call 799-7242 or visit joyofsake.com.
Photo: Courtesy of Joy of Sake
Things have changed. Sake consumption is rapidly sinking in Japan, down more than half in the past 20 years. Sake consumption in the United States has nearly tripled since 1998. In Japan, sake has been eclipsed by beer and shochu.
For us, that’s good news. You can now find top-end ginjo-shu sakes from small regional kura (sake breweries).
You drink these sakes cold. They start as expensive rice, and sake makers throw most of it away. They spend days milling the rice down to 50 to 60 percent of the original grain. That leaves pure starch, eliminating the fats and proteins that give inexpensive sake its blecch flavors. You heat commonplace sake partly to disguise its flavor.
Premium sakes are like exceptional wines, and cost about the same. In fact, sake making is one of the few human activities that makes winemaking look straightforward. To get wine, you turn the sugar in grape juice to alcohol. To make sake, you turn the starch in rice into sugar, the sugar into alcohol. And you have to handle both these tricky reactions simultaneously.
Wine tastes of grapes and terroir. Good sake doesn’t taste like rice. It tastes like distilled moonlight. Combine the right food with sake and it’s like a moonlit picnic with someone attractive.
Sake is no picnic, you say? Most people “know” that sake is dangerously more alcoholic than wine. Typically, sake’s brewed to 18 to 20 percent alcohol, diluted back to 15 percent.
If you think wine is less alcoholic, you haven’t read the fine print on your wine labels lately.