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Dining: In Search of Sake

Or, the curse of the Sake Column


(page 2 of 4)

Back in 1971, an average Napa Valley wine was 12.5 percent alcohol by volume. It’s now 14.8 percent. Australia reds like shiraz and grenache easily average about 15 percent. Many of the world’s major red wines weigh in at or about 16 percent. I’ve even tasted California chardonnays that potent.

There are restaurants like Michael Mina’s RN74 in San Francisco that won’t stock these hot-with-alcohol wines, because they don’t marry well with food.

 Sake does, especially with salty and pungent flavors.

“Oh, I love sake with food,” said Nadine Leong. “To me, it’s more forgiving than wine, you can eat more things with it.”

With the closing of Sake Street, I was casting about for a new place to go. On impulse, I’d picked up the phone and called The Sake Shop.

Within a few minutes Nadine and I were chatting like we actually knew each other.

“Where do you go out for food and sake?” I asked.

She laughed. “I’m stuck in the shop all the time,” she said. “Malcolm’s out with his insurance clients. I’ll ask him.”

After a marital consult, she called back to suggest a little sushi bar tucked in the back of Natsunoya Tea House. “It’s a bring-your-own place,” she said.

“Why don’t you and Malcolm meet us there?” I said. “I’ll buy dinner. You bring the sake.”

Which takes us back to the point where Malcolm arrived at Natsunoya, all smiles and moustache, a small blue cooler tucked under his arm. I was under the illusion all my problems were solved.


Natsunoya Tea House
1935 Makanani Dr.  // 595 -4488   //
Dinner Thursday through Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m. Free parking, major credit cards.   // natsunoya.com

Emiko Fujiwara of Natsunoya Tea House.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

You’ve likely been to Natsunoya Tea House at one time or another, maybe for a bridal shower, a retirement party or a yakudoshi. The last remaining full-time Japanese tea house in the Islands, Natsunoya has perched on Alewa Heights since 1921.

Natsunoya isn’t a restaurant. It does banquets and catering. But in a back room that once held a furo, a young chef named Garrett Wong had put together a little sushi bar, specializing in Japanese fish. Wong is ambitious, cooking up a number of additional small plates, so his operation is more like an izakaya, serving food perfect for consuming with sake.

Malcolm had brought three sakes, starting off with one of his favorites, Dassai 50. Dassai 50 is sold as a junmai ginjo. Junmai simply means “pure rice,” no added alcohol to extract flavors. To make a ginjo sake, you have to polish away at least 40 percent of the rice kernels. Dassai 50 is actually milled down 50 percent, so technically it could call itself a daiginjo.

It’s one of those distilled moonlight sakes, a trifle sweet and melony on the front end, but light, clean and elegant all the way through.

 “I thought we’d drink this with the lighter seafood dishes,” says Malcolm. To prove his point, he ordered sashimi: toro (tuna belly), sake (salmon), mirugai (geoduck clam), aji and shima-aji, both of which are usually translated as “horse mackerel,” a wonderful, light fleshed fish, with just enough pow! that you know you’re eating seafood.

“See,” said Malcolm. “The Dassai works. It’s easy to drink, the kind of sake you can’t go wrong with. It’s a good sake for people to begin with.”

“I like the fuller-bodied sakes,” says Nadine.

Garrett Wong's ama ebi and uni sushi.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

“My wife’s the one with masculine tastes,” says Malcolm. “I like the more girlie sakes.”

He had a fuller-bodied sake ready to go, a Mizbasho Ginjo, also polished down to half the kernel. If Mizbasho were a wine, it would be fruit-forward: a blast of honeydew, cantaloupe, pears and ripe apple. But it finishes tough, with a bite of astringency and even some bitterness at the tail.

It went well with one of Wong’s less traditional specials: moi carpaccio with truffle oil ponzu.

By this time, Malcolm and I had both the Dassai and Mizbasho going at once. We’d anticipated a nice, orderly succession of courses, with careful tasting notes.

So while Malcolm and I were letting Wong bring us his delicate sushi, Nadine and my wife took matters into their own hands, ordering almost every cooked dish on the chalkboard.

We ate everything in any order. “I thought there was going to be some method in our madness, but it’s a better idea to keep them happy,” Malcolm observed.

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