Dining: In Search of Sake

Or, the curse of the Sake Column
Genius Lounge Sake Bar & Grill

Sake’s star is rising in the U.S., where consumption has nearly tripled since 1998. This refreshing sake presentation can be found at Genius Lounge.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

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.

Nadine and Malcolm Leong, owners of the new retail store The Sake Shop. For tastings and other events, check out sakeshophawaii.com.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

“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.


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.


A sashimi plate with toro, aji akule, shima-aji imported from Japan.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

Our sushi included some wonders: sweet raw shrimp, ama ebi, topped with sea urchin, uni. A thin, halfbeak needlefish called sayori. In addition to the nigiri sushi, Wong wrapped the silver fish skin around a skewer and torched it, so it was full of the salty, potent, fishy flavors that go so well with sake.

In the meantime, the ladies had ordered “lollipops”—little lamb chops, marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary. Whole Kauai shrimp, rolled in cornstarch and deep-fried. And hotate kushikatsu, some sweetheart little fresh bay scallops, skewered and deep-fried in panko. Wong’s serious about food; he needs his own place with a full kitchen.

Malcolm and I would pause from time to time to taste the cooked offerings. “I can’t remember which of the sakes went with the lamb,” he said. “Do you?”

No, maybe both.

The ladies proceeded to dessert, a vanilla panna cotta saved from blandness by a nicely tannic green-tea sauce. Plus two orders of candy-topped cream puffs, one with chocolate chips and another with almond crunch, made by Wong’s girlfriend for his restaurant.

Malcolm has character. Resisting dessert entirely, he ordered a spicy tuna roll. He wanted to make a point: A spicy roll went perfectly with his Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo, a sake with a poetic name, “Summer Snow.”

It looks like snow, or maybe like a snow globe in a sake bottle. Nigori sakes are unfiltered, so they still have bits of rice suspended in them, making them thick and sweet.

 “Nigori sake is an acquired taste for most people,” says Malcolm, “but it’s dynamite with hot foods.” If you are looking for a first nigori to sample, “Summer Snow”—with its restrained sweetness and crisp acidity—would be a logical place to start.

Dinner was an unanticipated pleasure. The food was right on, perfect with the sake. I was about to go on and on about how talented and serious Wong was, how you really had to try his food.

Then the curse of this column struck again.

Wong and Natsunoya suddenly parted ways. Natsunoya’s sushi bar was closed. Natsunoya plans to renovate, then reopen the sushi bar. It may have karaoke when it reopens, but it won’t have Wong. I look forward to the day when he opens his own small place. He’s worth finding.

Malcolm and Nadine’s Sake Shop mercifully remains open, 1461 South King St., 947-7253. sakeshophawaii.com.

Genius Lounge Sake Bar & Grill
346 Lewers St.  // 922-2822   //
Daily 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. Parking difficult (try the pay lot next door), major credit cards.

Sake glasses in a traditional masu, a square wooden box traditionally used to measure rice. Now it’s main use is to serve sake.

Photo by: Olivier Koning

“Where’s the restaurant? This is a clothing store,” said my wife. “It’s full of paisleys and tie-dyes; the ’60s never left.”

“The store, believe it or not, has a sake bar upstairs,” I said, “I hope they don’t realize that once we eat at a place, it immediately closes.”

“Don’t tell them,” she said. “You promised me katsu and fried rice.”

To get away from the TVs over the bar, we ended up on the lānai, fitted with metal outdoor furniture, overlooking the street and the loading dock of the DFS Galleria. In the food blogs, Genius Lounge gets described as “hip.” Perhaps I’m immune, but it just seemed to me reasonably pleasant.

The diverse pūpū menu was reasonably pleasant also, not as dazzling as Wong’s food at Natsunoya, but far better than you’d expect in a cocktail lounge. The heavily breaded pork katsu was respectable enough. The fried rice was rife with fiery kim chee and enriched with a fried egg. The citrus pepper chicken wasn’t particularly citrus-y, but the chicken had been grilled, keeping the skin, losing the fat and punching up the flavor.

Two items hooked my attention. The menu described the first as pork and vegetable skewers—an understatement. A little bundle of tiny enoki mushrooms and a big green shishido pepper, both grilled, tied up in a strip of flavorful grilled pork. There were two of these on the plate, and I could have eaten three or four plates if I hadn’t filled up on the tarama.

Given that we were in a sake bar and tarama involves fish eggs, you’d expect this to be a Japanese dish. But it’s Greek—full name: taramasalata. To stretch the flavors you mix pungent cod roe in something, in this case, mashed potatoes. Sounds odd, I know, but people have been eating it for centuries.

Genius’ presentation, arrayed on a gold-colored plate, was cross-cultural: a bowl of tomato salsa and a bowl of Boursin, the commercial cheese spread.


The key was to eat all three elements at once spread on a toast triangle: It added up to more than the sum of its parts.

Soft cheese—especially a salty, flavored cheese like Boursin—goes remarkably well with sake. Genius has 50 sake selections (which they claim, incorrectly, is half the sakes available in Honolulu, it’s more like a third).

To spare you from working your way through the honjozos and daiginjos, they also offer some major, high-quality sakes in samplers. For $11, you get a nifty wooden tray holding a 2-ounce glass of three different sakes. That’s cheaper than ordering a full 6-ounce glass of any one of them.

Each sampler tray comes with a helpful guide, telling you which sake is which and giving you a little promo copy on each one.

They are mainstream sakes, no real surprises, but they include a few that everyone should taste. Tedorigawa Yamahai Daiginjo (“Chrysanthemum Meadow”), which starts out all honey on the tongue, a little spicy like the scent of chrysanthemums, and then goes light as spring water. Kamoizumi Junmai Daiginjo (“Autumn Elixir”) works if you’re tired of clean, mild sakes and want some bitterness and earthy overtones. Finally, Dewazakura Dewasansan (“Green Ridge”), which is supposed to taste of melons with a green apple finish, but to me tastes of, you guessed it, distilled moonlight.

“Enough with the alcohol,” said my wife. “Dessert.” With joy, she tucked into the banana cake (more like banana bread) with its scoop of chocolate ice cream. “There’s something wonderful in this cake,” she said. “What is it?”

I tasted it. Rum, poured on rather than baked in.  Not sake, but not bad, either.

Dinner with a couple of sake samplers and tip was $85.

Third time’s a charm. As I write this, Genius Lounge is still open. However, given my track record this month: If you’ve got your heart set on eating there, you might want to hurry.       

John Heckathorn has been writing award-winning restaurant reviews for HONOLULU Magazine since 1984.