Hibino Star Sighting!

banner.jpgMy trip to Japan was exhilarating, but exhausting. After days of struggling to find my way around around Kyoto and embarrassing myself trying to use broken Japanese, I was glad to be back in my crowded, loud, but favorite city: New York, baby! Still, I didn’t want to leave Kyoto totally behind. What’s a samurai to do? Go to Hibino, of course!

obanzai.jpgHibino (333 Henry Street, Brooklyn, 718-260-8052) is a Kyoto style restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn and one of the crown Jewels of the neighborhood. They serve delicious sushi and sake, but what makes Hibino ‘Kyoto style’? One word: “Obanzai”. Also known as Obanzai Ryori, Obanzai is really just small side dishes prepared daily with elegantly appointed ingredients such as tofu, boiled daikon and eggplants. It’s a distinct style of Japanese tapas that reflect the refined tastes of Japan’s most historic city.

dassai50.jpgUpon arriving, friendly Manager Hinata Sato-san seated us at the bar but soon came over to ask me if I was Mr. Urban Sake! I thought, wow… I’m really becoming famous! Soon the paparazzi will be chasing me and Linsey Lohan down the red carpet! Well…not quite. As it turns out Sato-san reminded me that I’m friends with Hibino Restaurant on Myspace. Oh well, it wasn’t quite my 15 mins of fame. It was more like 15 seconds, but who’s counting. Time for a drink.

The Hibino sake menu is consice but solid. Here is a sampling of the brews that had to offer on the evening I was there:

  • Tamano Hikari Junmai Ginjo (from Kyoto!)
  • Masumi Karakuchi Ki Ippon Junmai Ginjo
  • Dassai 50
  • Dewazakura Oka Ginjo
  • Diamond Dust Nigori
  • Ugo No Tsuki Junmai Ginjo
  • Born Muroka namagenshu
  • Born Tokusen Junmai Daiginjo

tofu.jpgLots of fun and interesting choices, but since this was my decompress from Japan night, I went with the sake brand I enjoyed there on my trip to Yamaguchi, Dassai. The Dassai 50 is a terrific sake and a real value given what your getting. Having gotten a view of life at the brewery, I have a real appreciation for the care and effort it takes to create a consistent taste in a sake. So many variables could effect the flavor. Dassai came through with flying colors as usual.

The Obanzai and sushi are both really good here, but not to be missed on the Hibino menu is the freshly homemade tofu. It’s kinda unreal how good it is… and I’m not usually a tofu fanatic (UrbanTofu.com anyone?). Please try it. you’ll like it!

Oh, and if you happen to see me on the red carpet sometime during my remaining 14 mins and 45 seconds of fame, be sure to say hello. No autographs, please.

Donguri – Sippin’ It Old Skool

Donguri EntranceNew York’s Upper East Side is a bastion of Old Money, well preserved traditions as well as many well preserved ‘Ladies who Lunch’. Kinda goes without saying that this mostly makes for a decidedly un-hip place to hang out. On my last trip to the UES, my search for sake took me to delightful Donguri Restaurant (309 East 83rd Street 212-737-5656). All outward appearances makes you think that Donguri is a place stuck in the past with it’s somewhat conservative-feeling interior, place setting and waitress uniforms. However, a peek at the sake menu made me see that these guys were squarely focused on quality, not flash in the pan fads.

dewazakura omachiI quickly ordered a sake I had yet to try, namely the Dewazakura “Omachi” Junmai Ginjo (SMV: +5, Acidity: 1.6, Rice: Omachi, Seimaibuai: 50%, Yamagata Prefecture). The “Omachi” in the name stands for Omachi rice, one of the better known strains of sake rice. I really enjoyed this sake and I’m anxious to try it again. My biggest impression was it’s refreshing nature, good structure and a neat touch of crisp fruit opening up with hints of grapes and melon. The finish is dry. I think the rice plays a big role with this sake and it will be fun to learn more about rice in coming months. Give it a try if you can!

Donguri_carafe.jpgThe food at Donguri was also a study in quality. My sashimi was terrific but there was one dish on the menu that kinda stole the show: Sweet Corn Tempura. When the couple at the next table ordered two servings, Scott and I knew we had to investigate. The taste was yummy, sweet and fried – with a pop corn aftertaste. This was one of my favorite foods I’ve ever had. The Omachi Junmai Ginjo worked well with the tempura, and had enough backbone to stand up. Our Waitress confirmed that the Sweet Corn Tempura was a very popular dish. It’s prepared by simple shaving off chunks of corn right from the cob and into the fryer. a revelation!

Corn_Tempura.jpgA bowl of green tea ice cream later and I was in heaven. I left Donguri content and very, very happy with my meal and sake.

This is a restaurant to visit with friends who will appreciate a true Japanese experience at a place where they can’t even spell the word “fusion”.

Sake Scene at Soba-ya

sobaya_sake_storageDown old East Village way is a little soba place called Soba-ya that is just the bees knees. I’ve been there twice now, so it’s finally time to post on the sake happenings at this terrific soba joint. First thing to know – there will always be a wait to be seated if you arrive without reservations- this place is popular! The interior could pass for your standard just-above-average sushi restaurant, but I don’t think people come here for the ambiance.

pouring_izumijudan.jpgIt was raining the night I went last, so we lucked out and there was only about a 10 min wait to sit at the bar – which is the most fun place to sit in most japanese restaurants anyway, i’m learning. Before we get to the sake, a quick word on the food. ok, it’s delicious. The soba is perfect and the tempura is dreamy. Something I learned: They also give you soba cooking water to pour into your dipping sauce to make a yummy broth to finish your meal – I wasn’t sure what to make of this practice at first, but it’s really delicious. It’s like a free soup with your meal! and nothing goes to waste.

kurosawa_junmai_kimotoSoba-ya sake menu is broad and well chosen. This could almost be sake soba heaven. I say almost because there is one tiny little drawback. What is it? All about the Moola. The prices were a bit on the steep side – about $18 for a single masu. This sticker shock drove me again to a carafe of a lower-priced, yet lovable stand by: Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto (Kurosawa Brewing Co., SMV +2, Junmai Kimoto, Nagano Prefecture). Ahh… Kurosawa Junmai Kimoto is a favorite of this sake lover. It may not be overly complex or layered but, it is smooth, drinkable, a touch dry and I think it pairs just perfectly with more hearty fare like the tempura I wasdewazakura_izumijudan.jpg enjoying. Since this Junmai is easy on the wallet, i try to buy this sauce in the 1.8 liter size and I think it often as an everyday sipping sake after a long day at work.

After my Kurosawa ni-go carafe ran low, I looked again to the sake menu for something else – I wanted just one more “go”! for the evening. I turned to another well known sake: Dewazakura Izumijudan Ginjo (”Tenth Degree” ALC 17.5% SMV +12, Acidity 1.4, Seimaibuai 50%, Yamagata Prefecture). This charmer is drier and more layered than the Kurosawa. It goes down smooth, though and I really enjoyed it. It has a nice depth of flavor that was great to sip on after my meal.

When all is said and done, the folks at Soba-ya get it right. They focus on great soba and terrific sakes to go with them. If headed here to make a sake soaked night of it, be prepared for the nihon-shu prices, but if you plan well and drink conservatively, you will no doubt leave happier than you arrived.

Honmura An

honmura_an_logo.gifIn New York City, we have more opportunities sip Japanese sake than maybe just about anywhere outside Japan. On the one hand, this may very well be the reason I have never been able to find the money for a down-payment for a condo. On the other hand, Scott and I have discovered some superb sake and had some utterly sublime meals.

My recent experience at SoHo’s Honmura An (170 Mercer St, 212-334-5253) was just such a Condo-Payment-Be-Damned transcendent sake-food pairing experience.

This place is off ‘da hook. We both loved it, and before we get to the sake, let me say straight away we had the best service. Our waitress was attentive, efficient, informed yet completely unobtrusive. Such a rarity in NYC, I felt like visiting royalty.

Tsukino_Katsura_Yanagi.jpgHonmura An’s claim to fame is the soba, but I focused more on the sake. The Sake menu was substantial but not overwhelming. There were some sakes that I knew such as Kubota Manju, Tamano Hikari, Urakasumi, and Harushika Choukara .

I decided to go with a tokkuri of Tsukino Katsura “Yanagi” (Junmai Ginjo, Kyoto Prefecture, ). The hammered metal tokkuri was quite beautiful and solid. The ochoko was made of the same metal and was also heavy. I liked this substantial sake service – it made me “weigh” each sip and pour so my sake actually lasted longer. The sake itself was really, really good. I was happy with my selection! “Yanagi” was lightly fragrant as well as smooth and perfectly balanced on the palate. The flavors were elegant and nicely complex. The finish lingered a bit which was a happy way to end each and every sip.

Hitori_Musume_Nigori.jpgScott ordered the Hitori Musume Nigori (Ibaragi Prefecture) This Nigori was really good without losing any street cred. It’s light – not a lot of thickness or texture to it. There is a noticeable Alcohol kick on this finish. I found it a tiny bit rough and tumble around the edges, but overall a solid choice. I would recommend Hitori Musume to people freaked out by chunky nigori soup.

Scott’s nigori was served in an raw wooden masu with salt on the side. I’d never seen this done anywhere else I’ve been and this would be my only critique of Honmura An. The raw wood can really do a number on the nuanced flavors of some sakes and it’s not recommended. I did a little research on this whole ‘salt on the side’ thing and found this John Gauntner’s Newsletter from 2002:

The pinch of salt on the corner is interesting as well. According to one source (there are sure to be many opinions), the salt should not be placed just on the corner, but a bit to the side of it, so that when one drinks, the salt touches the corner of the lips, not dead center. This allows the sake to be the main flavor, with the salt on the side. Note, the salt should not be allowed to fall into the sake.

Why salt? According to the same source (a historian at one of the large breweries in Japan), the salt was more for the proprietor than the consumer. Salt is often used in purification rituals in Japan, as well as for good luck in drawing customers to places of food and drink. Apparently this superstition was one big reason for putting the pinch of salt on the edge of the masu. But again, there are sure to be other interpretations.

Also, long ago sake was stronger and much sweeter, and simple things like salt and miso were often used as snacks while drinking. A bit of salt was also thought to stimulate the appetite and make the sake itself more enjoyable.

So if you go, just ask for the metal tokkuri and not the masu.

Just a quick word about Honmura An’s shrimp tempura. I guess this shrimp is flown in from Japan and it has a price tag to match, but you cannot miss it if you go to Honmura An. Scott’s sake paired beautifully with this and, well, yum!

So, if you don’t have any qualms about putting off your visit to the mortgage loan officer at the bank, book a reservation at Honmura An instead. You may live in a rental for a little while longer, but I promise you, you’ll eat like a king.

Tsukasabotan: A Space Odyssey

Orbit trajectory Sake Captain’s Log, Stardate 1215.6 — I was recently invited to join some friends at awesome Sake Hana (265 E. 78th St btw 2nd and 3rd Ave 212-327-0582) to try Tsukasabotan “Space Sake”. Sake from outer space? Well, not exactly… It’s actually sake made from yeast that was blasted into orbit. Houston, do we have a problem? …could this all be a big marketing gimmick?

Turns out, Space Sake is for real. The Japanese “Space Sake Committee” from Kochi Prefecture negotiated with the Russians to send yeast into space via a Soyuz rocket for 10 days, from Oct. 1 – 11, 2005. Starting in April 2006, Sake made from this high flying yeast was made available to the general public.

And now I was about to Boldy Go into the world of space sake. First the stats… Tsukasabotan Tosa Space Sake space_sake_bottle.jpg(Kochi Prefecture, SMV +5, Acidity 1.5, Seimaibuai 55%). When I first tried this sake, the thing i noticed was light hints of fruit on the palate and in the nose. To me, it was very specifically strawberry. So in a nutshell, Outer Space tastes less like a dark, infinite void and more like a strawberry Lifesaver.

The finish was short and also had light fruit tones – kind of lychee-esque. Overall, space sake didn’t send me over the moon, but it was good. This sake was refined and smooth and enjoyable but for my palate it lacked that balance that I like best, but I’m sure there are others who will love this stuff.

To make things even more interesting, Toshi, our host at Sake Hana, offered me a sip of two other sakes made by Tsukasabotan to contrast and compare the tastes. They were Tsukasabotan Junmai (ALC 15.5%) and Tsukasabotan Senchu Hassaku (Tokubetsu Junmai, SMV +8, Acidity 1.4, ALC 15.5%). Tsukasabotan_sake_smackdown.jpgThese two Earthbound Tsukasabotan sakes are ones I’ve tried before, so I already had an idea of their flavor profiles, but I was excited to do this comparison.

This head-to-head tasting was like the tale of the 3 bears.

The plain old Junmai was earthy and a bit dank, the space sake was not quite balanced for my taste, but the Senchu Hassaku was just right!

Tsukasabotan Senchu is cool. Even the label is written in orange neon kanji. This sake has a unique flavor profile and I highly recommend it. It’s dry, but smooth and supurbly balanced. Watch for a quick finish. I think this sake is a real treat and for my yen, it’s the best value, too.

Sakurai_san_Ai_san.jpgIt was a lot of fun going in this space adventure with my friends Toshi-san, KC-san, Tomo-san, Lefty-san, Min-san and Ai-san. Even Mr. Sakurai made an appearance! The Star Trek geek in me loved the romantic notion of “space sake” orbiting the earth, but the jaded New Yorker in me was left wondering – do I really taste anything special? When all is said and done, i’m going to give in to the romance of space travel. Who wouldn’t want to rocket to the stars? Even if it’s only for a few sips.

Sake Bloggers of the World Unite!

from_left.jpgQuestion: What would you get if all the sake bloggers in the world had a tasting of the same sakes on the same night?

Answer: Why, you’d get the World’s First Cyber Sake Tasting, that’s what!

Working with my sake blogging friends Valerie of The Sake Diaries in Minneapolis, Melinda of Tokyo Through the Drinking glass and Etsuko of TokyoFoodcast we agreed to each host a tasting on the same night with the same 4 sakes plus one “wildcard” of our choosing. The sakes would get tasted and reviewed across time, space and international borders and then afterwards, everyone would post their results.

atsuko-and-timothy_1.jpgHere is how things shaped up at Urban Sake Headquarters:

  • Rihaku Junmai Ginjo (“Wandering Poet”, SMV +3, Acidity 1.6, ALC 15.2%)
    Average Rating: 6.3 out of 10. I paired this will some wasabi rice cracker mix. Comment: “Fragrant Nose” “Flavor expands as the sake warms”
  • Urakasumi Zen Junmai Ginjo (“Misty Bay”, SMV +1, Acidity 1.3, ALC 15.5%)
    Average Rating: 6.3 out of 10. This was paired with delicious Seaweed salad that Atsuko brought. Comment: “Nice & Drinkable” “Slightly citrus”
  • cream_puff.jpgShirakawago Sansannigori (“Bamboo Leaf”, SMV 0, Acidity 1.5, ALC 15.3%)
    Average Rating: 5 out of 10. Paired with fried japanese chicken wings.
    Comment: “Slightly Funky aftertaste.” “Tastes better at room temp” “My favorite pairing!”
  • Tamano Hikari Junmai Daiginjo (“Brilliant Jade”, SMV +3.5, Acidity 1.7, ALC 16.2) Average Rating 8.6 out of 10. Paired with Dried Squid. (don’t ask)
    Comment: “Clean & Complex” “Outstanding!”
  • the_whole_gang.jpgKubota Hekiju ( SMV +2, Acidity 1.5, ALC 15.5%)
    Paired with Choux Factory Cream Puffs.
    Comment: “Barely there” “Delicious” “smooooth”

The clear winner at the NYC tasting was the Tamano Hikari. It was fresh and clean and complex enough to inspire a lot of interest. It is also interesting that Zen and Wandering Poet averaged out to the exact same score among the New York City crowd.

Special thanks to Chao-I, Atsuko, Jesse, Stephen and Scott for being a part of sake history. I know I had a lot of fun and I hope you guys did too!
Check out these blogs for other views of the trans-pacific super cyber sake tasting:
Tokyo Through the Drinking Glass
The Sake Diaries


Suspicious Minds

Azia_bar.jpgRecently, Scott invited me to travel with him to Minnesota for his college reunion. I know… Minnesota is out there, but I knew deep down there would be some sake adventure somewhere to be had, so off I went – and I’m glad I did. After a little research and a few emails with our friend Valerie of the sake diaries blog, I found out about a restaurant called Azia in Minneapolis. This place caught my eye in particular as their website boasts the “Biggest Sake List in Minnesota”. Just how big is the biggest sake list in Minnesota? Is it any good? Can Minneapolis put some ‘Urban’ in their sake? Inquiring minds want to know! So, we made a reservation and I hoped for the best.
We arrived at Azia and we were promptly seated. The decor was pan-asian. The menu was pan-asian and the sake list was, luckily, all japanese.

Rihaku_wandering_poet.jpgWhen I got my hands on the “Biggest Sake list in Minnesota”, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. They offered 21 sakes ranging from $10 – $34 for a 5 oz serving. The menu had a great explanation of basic sake terms and it seemed this place really put some thought into the way they present their nihon-shu.

Azia lists most of the sakes they serve on their website. All the brands are well known and solid. Included among them are: Onikoroshi, Ichinokura, Otokoyama, Tentaka, Mukune and more. I decided to keep focused for the evening and centered my attention on Rihaku. My first glass of the evening was Rihaku “Wandering Poet” (Junmai Ginjo, shimane Prefecture, SMV +3, ALC 15.2%, Seimaibuai 55%, Acidity 1.6). This junmai Ginjo is delicious and a wonderful warmup for the food of the evening. I actually ended up drinking the Rihaku Ginjo with a selection of Oysters that we ordered for appetizers. This was actually perfect because the sake did such a good job of ‘resetting’ my palate after each briny swig of oyster, it really added to my enjoyment.

Rihaku_Nigori.jpgWith my sushi main course, I stuck with Rihaku and ordered the Rihaku Nigori “Cloudy Dreams” (Tokubetsu Junmai, Shimane Prefecture, SMV: +3, ALC: 15.6%, Seimaibuai: 59%, Acidity: 1.6) With a little extra Wasabi mixed into my soy sauce, nigori goes well with sushi. I really enjoyed the Nigori from Rihaku. It was surprisingly light and smooth. Even a touch fruity, which you don’t usually get from nigori. Above all it was so food friendly and enjoyable. I will be looking for this one again!

I was so excited about the Rihaku Nigori that I wanted to get the perfect picture to include in the blog. It turns out that my picture taking (without the flash!) caught the eye of the owner who came over to our table and asked how we were enjoying the sake. I later discovered he thought I was trying to steal the sake list! That’s a very cold-war east-german-spy way of making off with a sake list, eh? Luckily our waitress figured out that I was just a sake obsessed blogger and she quickly smoothed things over. By the end of the evening I’d even been given a copy of the sake list to take home!

If you’re ever in Minnesota and looking for a little (or big) tipple of sake, Azia is hands down THE place to go. They take their nihon-shu seriously and it shows. Go thirsty and leave happy, but be sure to practice your covert secret-spy undercover camera operation before you go.

Naka Naka, Who’s There?

Saké glass at Naka Naka

After reading about the homestyle japanese cooking at the new japanese place Naka Naka (458 W 17th St. New York, NY 10011), Scott concluded we had been working hard and deserved a treat.We made a reservation for early on a saturday night and off we went. Let me start off by saying that the food at naka naka is no joke, however many knock knock puns they may have heard to date.The mood of the place seemed authentically Japanese, best I could tell. waitresses wore kimono and knelt in front of the low table to deliver food and pour sake.

Sake display at Naka Naka

Oddly, the sake menu was quite limited. On the special’s board (who knew japan had these too – just like at applebees!) the listed a special sake that came in a smaller size so I went with that.Its a Junmai ginjo called Tomoju. Scott said the name of that sake sounded familar to him and we quickly realized it was his favorite sake from his flight at Bozu a few nights earlier. Oh goodie – that was a great sake.

Galvanized Ice Bucket

The bottle arrived on ice in a gavanized oblong tub. As we found at Bozu, Tomoju was really really good. This sake is balanced. well balanced. I found a hint of dryness in the finish that was quite delightful. Tomoju offered a perfect counterpoint and stood up to the food we ordered.I was really enjoying the sake but it soon took a back seat – stop the presses – to a major star sighting!

Easy, Breezy, Covergirl!

Our First celeb on UrbanSake.com. Naka Naka. Who’s there? Oscar Winning Actress Susan Sarandon!! She was out with her kids for dinner . It was really quite uneventful, but fun none the less.I did consider telling her how much I loved her Marmie in “Little Women” and her covergirl commercial, but I know what it’s like when fans constantly come up and talk to me, so I left her alone.

Ms. Sarandon was drinking beer, not sake, it should be noted.

Well, the evening was a success, the sake was a hit and Scott and I felt justly rewarded for all our hard work.


If you see Tomoju in the store on on a sake menu, give it a try. Also be sure to try out naka naka! the food and service were great.But please… come prepared with your own knock knock joke.

Naka Naka

Who’s there?


Orange who?

Orange you glad you drink sake?

Back to Bozu

This sign means you've found the best sake in williamsburgWhen you’re a Manhattan-loving, Brooklyn-fearing snob like me, it’s not often that you get on the train and head off to Brooklyn for the whole day on purpose. However, I see now that Scott really knows what he’s doing. To entice me to go with him to a Brooklyn event, he promised me dinner -and sake- at Bozu afterwards. I’ve written about Bozu before, (and you can read about that trip here) but this time, it was just me and scott and a quiet evening just for the two of us.

Our Friendly server at BozuOur Bartender last January was this really nice and friendly guy — i’ve never seen anyone before or since pour sake with such self assurance. I mean, he held the bottle pretty far away from the tiny cup and was able to fill it exactly to the rim without spilling a drop.

This time, he wasn’t there, and our nice waitress wasn’t totally spot-on with her recommendations. I asked for advice/ direction from her on flavor profile for some of the sakes on the bozu menu. She said a few times when describing a sake to me that “It’s a sake lovers sake with real sake taste”. Hmmm. I’m not sure what that means, but I think maybe she means a stronger rice-y flavor? Well once we were seated at the bar and I had a chance to scour the sake menu, I found a nama i’d never had and scott went for a special tasting that was being offered.

Bozu Favorites Sake FlightScott’s tasing consisted of:

1) Tomoju Junmai Ginjo, Ibaraki Prefecture
2) Chiyomusubi Tokubetsu Junmai, Tottori Prefecture
3) Aoinikko Junmai, Tochigi Prefecture

The first of his sakes, the Tomoju, was the best. This sake rang clear as a bell and had a subtle flavor with just enough complexity to stand on it’s own. It was really well balanced and well, just plain yummy.

Scott’s second sake was the Chiyomusubi. I Enjoyed it, but it had a bit more of a sharp edge and bite. not a bad thing, mind you, but that should be something you’re looking for.

Lastly, Scott sampled the Aoinikko. THis sake disappointed my palate. Scott described it as brine-y. I would say it has a “strong rice flavor”. This sake was, of course drinkable, but not my favorite.

Ohtouka NamazakeI chose a 300 ML bottle of Ohtouka Namzake (Nariwa Ozeki Shuzo Co., ALC 13.5%). This Nama really came through in the clutch. It was just what the dr. ordered for this day. Being hot outside, I was looking for something refreshing, light and summery. This nama was gently perfumed and not too bold with a tinge of sweetness. I appreciated the restraint. it was very drinkable with food. Only drawback was I felt it lacked a little complexity and was just a little too “Maryann Singleton” for my tastes. The food was quite good on this nite and The Ohtouka Nama went well with it! As before, the atmostphere was comfortable and the food and sake were good.

I think I’ll venture “Back to Bozu” next time events lure me to Williamsburg. It’s a refreshing sake oasis in a sea of Brooklyn Lager.

April ’06 Sake Meetup

The Sake Cru saddles up to the barThe Sake Meetup group, well, ‘met up’ last night at Landmark for a private tasting. It was quite fun as usual. This night was a study in old friends and new friends… this goes for both the sake AND the people!

I knew two of the sakes that were served on sight. (see, I am learning!) These familiar friends were Mineno Hakubai and Otokoyama We started with an old standby Otokoyama “Man’s Mountain”. Check out my last review of Man’s Mountain here. It tasted quite dry.

Paul preps the tasting and chills the sakeI actually think this Junmai may be a little softer and rounder if you drink it the day after it’s been opened.

Another familiar standby was Mineno Hakubai. Check out my review of this sake here. Old Mineno has been dubbed the “smooth operator” and it didn’t disappoint.

If you see this on the sake menu your next time out, it’s a solid choice if you’re not sure what to try.

Our two nigoris: Hitoimusume and RihakuPaul and Lefty did the organizing for tonight. Thanks guys!! They picked up some great sake snacks – crackers, cheese, mochi as well as Paul’s secret ingredient – banana chips – who knew?

I was so glad to see Amanda on hand as well. We always have fun. Great to get her perspective on what we were tasting and an update on Fiasco, too.

There were some sakes that were new to me as well. It’s always a treat to try something new – you’ll always learn something.

Masumi Arabashiri Name Sake just chillin' outThe new sake kids on the block were Nama Masumi Arabashiri, Rehaku Ginjo Nigori and Hitorimusume Junmai Nigori.

Personally, I really enjoyed the Nama Masumi Arabashiri (ALC 17.5%, SMV=0). It’s a classic nama. If you looked up Nama in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of this sake. It’s Nama-ness was hard to miss: young, fresh taste, super fragrant, floral and fruity.

Both Nigoris were creamy and went down smooth. it was a marked contrast to the somewhat sharp and dry Otokoyama. To my palate the Rehaku had the upper hand.

I think it’s fun to compare nigoris. Seems to me that nigori appreciation is an acquired taste. I disliked them at first, but now I’ve really come to enjoy them.

Mimi Checks out OtokoyamaThere were also some really nice new folks at the meeting – Scott, Nick and Mimi. Great to meet you guys and I hope to see you again.

See? You get the best of both worlds when you try new sakes with new friends and familiar sakes with familiar friends… or is that vise versa? um… Kanpai!

Think Pink!

Sakura @ Brooklyn Botanical GardenOk, class is in session. To fully appreciate this blog entry, there are a few key words of Japanese you need to learn:
Sakura = Cherry Blossom
Matsuri = Festival
Sakura Matsuri = Cherry Blossom Festival!

Scott and I had our own delightful Sake-infused Sakura Matsuri last Sunday. The festivities started with a trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. We’d been planning the trip for weeks and then the on-line cherry blossom detector told us that the blossoms were at peak so off we went. It was our first trip the the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the sights did not disappoint us. All the cherry blossoms were in bloom and really did look like “nature’s fireworks”. We also took a loop around the Japanese garden built in 1915 and home to turtles, ducks, carp and koi as well as some very manicured Japanese plants. every step at the BBG created a new vista and there were stunning views everywhere you looked. All this blossom-peeping was getting me hungry and thirsty!

Sakura Restaurant SignCherry-Blossom-themed Sakura restaurant in park slope was the perfect place to quench our thirst. I was pleasantly surprised to find their sake menu to be very expansive! They offered over three full pages of sake, but not all of it by the glass. I have already had many of the sake’s listed on the Sakura menu, so I zeroed in on a brewery I hadn’t tried yet. This time around “Japanese roulette” paid off in spades. I ordered a small carafe of Sawanoi Junmai Ginjo (Tokyo prefecture). This sake tasted light, refreshing and smooth with a tinge of sweetness. It went very, very well with the sushi we ordered and I found myself placing an order for another glass of Sawanoi to replace the carafe that had disappeared too quickly. I’ll have to find a place to buy this in the city… I want to taste it again. Recommended!

Sawanoi GinjoSomewhere I once read about a sake that is served in a traditional masu with a cherry blossom petal floated on the surface. I didn’t understand this before, but now I see this is meant to evoke that serene tableau of sipping sake under cherry blossoms in full bloom and perhaps having a single petal float down into your cup. After my day of home-grown Sakura Matsuri, I can’t think of a more perfect image to help convey the essence of what the whole cherry blossom thing is all about: Taking a moment to stop, sit and sip… to really take in the beauty, and the taste, before it inevitably fades away.

Chrissy Snow Ginjo

Chrissy SnowGrowing up with Three’s Company I identified much more with sensible Janet, but I always had a spot in my heart for that wacky Chrissy Snow. Such unassuming beauty… and yet so naive and uncomplicated. The image of Chrissy Snow leapt to mind with my first sip of MizuNoShirabe Ginjo. This Ginjo is pure and simple – uncomplicated with a sympathetic edge, just like Chrissy.

Mizunoshirabe GinjoIt’s watery clear, clean and crisp with a light fragrant aroma.

And just as we might recall Chrissy’s particular brand of ditzy-logical reasoning, MizuNoShirabe is also not overly complex but utterly delightful in it’s specific charms. First and foremost, it’s so drinkable. With 14.5% Alcohol, it’s a touch on the lighter side as well. I can envision myself enjoying MizuNoShirabe with all kinds of food. This is a bottle to have on hand in the fridge to share with friends who just might… come and knock on your door.

Be sure to look for this Ginjo at your local Sake retailer. It’s sure to please. You can bet your ThighMaster on that!

The Details:
MizuNoShirabe Ginjo, Brewed by Yamamoto Honke, Kyoto Prefecture, ALC 14.5%, SMV +5

I give Mizunoshirabe a 3.5 out of 5 sake bottles
[rate 3.5]

Diplomacy at Ambassador Wines

AmbassadorI had my very first trip to Ambassador Wines on the Upper east side recently. This is one of the most well known sake stores in the city. Now, normally I don’t run to the liquor store on my lunch hour to stock up on sake, but… this was an exception. I was up in midtown on the WEST side of 54th street for a business conference, and i knew that Ambassador was on the EAST side of 54th street. I had always wanted to go there and check out the sake selection… and I think this was as close as I was going to get – I was on the same street – so I went for it. This involved race-walking across 54th st from 6th ave to 2nd ave in sub-zero temperatures. I had an hour to get there, buy the goods and walk back. When I finally found the place, I walked in and was immediately surprised to see how cramped it was. wine was everywhere. The sales person asked me what I was looking for and I said “sake…”

In no time, I was whisked to the entrance of their “sake cellar”. This is a refrigerated sake room about the size of a small Manhattan walk-in closet. well, it’s bigger than my closet! Then I was handed off to the in-house expert sake-salesman. He asked what kind of sake I wanted – I said I’d like a “moderately priced DaiGinjo” (who wouldn’t?!)

ChiyonosonoHe offered me Wakatake… Been there! He offered me Mu… Done that! I was shown a few other DaiGinjos that were really expensive. hmmmm. We moved on to Ginjos. I must say, the Sake salesman at Ambassador was an expert. He knew his stuff! Normally, I would talk to him for hours, but I was on the clock and I had a 25 min. walk ahead of me and a conference to get back to.

He showed me Chiyonosono Junmai Ginjo… “Sacred Power” from Kumamoto Prefecture (Seimaibuai: 55%, Rice: Shinriki, Yeast: Kumamoto, Nihonshu-do: +2.5, Alcohol: 15.9%, Acidity: 1.5). This sake had a striking label with red letters and a beautiful frayed paper edge – it was even protected with bubble wrap! His description of the taste was of orange notes. Now, this really caught my attention and in the end I ran out of time, so I went with the Chiyonosono. I had never heard of a sake that tasted of orange!

Only problem, this one didn’t. When I got it home, the sake was full and delicious, but tasted to me more of a crisp pear than anything else. I wasn’t upset in the least – it’s all good – life’s just one big tasting in my book. And given Ambassador’s selection and service, I think they deserve diplomatic immunity from grumpy sake snobs.

I’d rate this sake 3 out of 5 sake bottles.
[rate 3.0]

Ice Ice Baby!

Ice Dome SakeI tried an interesting “Igloo” sake that I had heard about called Taisetsu from Takasago Brewery on Hokkaido Island. you can learn more about this brewery here. It’s a Junmai Ginjo with an ALC content of 16%, Nihonshu-Do of +3 and made with Ginpu sake Rice that I picked up at Landmark. This sake is slow aged in japanese ice dome igloo. I thought this sake was very fragrant and tasted smooth with a hint of carmel. The Sake is presented in a frosty ice blue bottle with a picture of the ice dome on the label. Certainly an interesting brewing method and worth exploring further!

Beware the Velvet Hammer

Menu CoverI realized the other day, I love my new hobby as a sake appreciator, but you know what my hobby really is?…. DRINKING! Obviously, I was never a frat boy and don’t really have a past history of drinking games and waking up outside on the lawn wearing someone else’s pants. I’ve never done a bodyshot or consumed beer thru a funnel, so it’s safe to say I normally don’t get too wasted while enjoying my new hobby. um, but last night was the exception. It was the first Sake Pairing dinner I had every been to, so, in my defense, I wasn’t really sure how things were going to work and before I figured it out, it was just too late. I brought along my dear friend David who is a food adventurer in his own right, so I was at least in great company as I slid into my first evening of all-out sake abuse.

Upon arriving at Matsuri, we were ushered into a side room that looked like it might seat about 50 or 60 people. There were communal tables so we had to sit with people we didn’t know which was unusal, but I tried to make the best of it. There were four glasses set in front of us on this kind of sake placemat. The pairing dinner was 5 courses and 4 sakes… no sake with dessert which is a big oversight in my book. Anyway, we were served our first sake which was the Tedorigawa “Iki na Onna”[LADY LUCK] Daiginjo. they had all the folks from the actual brewery on hand wearing these orange kata robes and a few ladies in colorful kimono. Mr. Toshio Yoshida was a handsome older gentleman with an eye for the ladies who was the senior representative from the Tedorigawa brewery sponsoring the pairing dinner. You can see an overview of the brewing process at Tedorigawa here He said a few words in japanese about each sake we were tasting and about the region of japan where the sake was produced. His comments were translated by another gentleman who I think also worked for the brewery. The first glass was poured and I took a sip. tasted familiar, but i wasn’t sure. I was sure it tasted good. I paced myself because I wanted to make sure I didn’t drink my entire glass befor the first course came out. Mr. Yoshida explained this sake was requested by the lady sake brewers of Japan He said that Iki means kinda like a chic, classy lady. I quickly finished my glass and, honestly, I was feeling kinda bummed that we had such a small tasting. before I really completed my thought, one of the nice ladies in kimono came around with a bottle and filled my glass of Iki na Onna back up to the brim. oh! a refill! well,. then I enjoyed Iki na Onna with larger swigs. the first course was Kobe Beef Tataki, Seared Tuna and Roasted duck which tasted yummy but was literally the size of 3 postage stamps. My glass got refilled again! It was slowly starting to dawn on me that they were giving our unlimited refills… I knew I had 3 other sakes ahead of me, but I pressed on – and they kept refilling!

Sake DescriptionsThe next sake was Tedirugawa “Arabashiri”[RIPPLING STREAM] Ginjo (Nama) and it was paired with a small skewer of yakitori, a few crabmeat Shumai and a poached sardine. Mr. Yoshida called this sake strong and flavorful. At this point Mr Yoshida was walking around with an assistant and stopping at each table for a picture and some flirting with all the women. I’m assuming Mrs. Yoshida was not along for this trip. My theory of endless refills was proving to be correct as the Arabashiri was refilled as fast as the Iki na onna. Everyone at the table remarked at the strong contrast between the two.

A Tiny piece of black cod was the next course and it was paired with Tedorigawa “Yamahai Junmai” [SILVER MOUNTAIN]. This Junmai was strong and a little on the sweet side. Could be my imagination but this one seemed to pack more of a punch – I bet the ALC content is higher on this one. Food-wise, this was the most forgettable course. the cod was tiny. It wasn’t bad, to be sure, but the food was not keeping pace with my sake consumption. I quickly put these thoughts out of my mind and focused on the task at hand.

the final sake was Tedorigawa “Yamahai Daiginjo” [CHRYSANTHEMUM MEADOW] and was paired with Sushi. I’d like to tell you what this sake tasted like or even what Mr. Yoshida said about this one, but i’d crossed the line. The bottomless sake up caught up with me. I was pretty far gone at this point. in fact, I remember everyone at the tasting was in a pretty good mood at this point.

After a yummy desert of Yuzy Crem-brulee the Matsuri chef Ono came out for a bow and dinner was over once the checks were paid. I made my way home – I was way beyond the sake zone at this point- but feeling giddy and indulgent and really tipsy. The sake’s were delicious and the tiny portions of food were delicious. the evening was delicious

Map of Japan showing TedorigawaThe next morning… ah, yes. what was the price to pay for all this merriment? I woke up a little thirsty, but no hangover. I swear, No hangover! I had a little water and I was good to go. I had escaped a direct hit from the velvet hammer. I think it was due to the higher grade of sake I was drinking. Sake really is a wonder! Now, I know that I would have enjoyed the pairing dinner even more if I had slowed down and valued the real taste of each sake instead of marveling at the sheer quantity, but that is a lesson I will put into practice at my next sake pairing. for now, all I can say is I love my new hobby!

Mystery Sake Revealed..

The Hakkai San Sign - Hand Crafted - the sign at leastI got my chance to return to the city’s number 1 japanese restaurant, Tomoe, and finally – once and for all- find out the name of that proto-sake I tasted there. That was the first premium I have ever had. It was delicious enough, especially with tomoe sushi, to get me really interested in premium rice wine in the first place. On my Last trip to Tomoe Scott and I enjoyed it a lot but we promptly forgot the name and went on about our lives. flash forward 8 months and now Sake has a major interest of mine as I fumble along and try to learn more. needless to say, I was curious. what was that sake that started the entire Urban Sake Blog Empire you see before you now?

Dollar for dollar, Tomoe is by far and away the best sushi in NYC. they have line forming outside a half an hour before they open to prove it. It was raining, so scott and I got in on the first seating. As we sat down, my eyes scanned the walls to find that sign that I remembered. by the taste that lingered in my memory, I was sure that I was looking for a Daiginjo. um, no Daiginjo to be seen… then I saw the “smooth type” sign I remembered… then it slowly dawned on me… my first love had been a Ginjo!? wait wait wait… I remember it tasting sooo good, I was sure it was a Daiginjo polished to 30%, hand crafted by monks in tiny batches at the base of Mt. Fuji. well, that’s what it tasted like to me at the time anyway!

Hakkai San Served at Tomoe.  Wine carafe and CHILLED glassesThen I remembered… the name! the name! what is the name!?! I saw it… Hakkai San! Ginjo. yes, now I remember. Well, we promptly ordered a carafe and enjoyed it immensely! Hakkai San was still really good… I had the pleasure of being at the first birthday party for the daughter of friends this past summer. at the party, the parents gave the birthday girl her first piece of chocolate ever in the form of devil’s food chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. She stuck her hands in the cake and put some in her mouth, a little unsure. she waited and looked to daddy. she tasted it… you could sense her brain working out the flavor and smell and sweetness…She may not have know what to do with such flavor at first, but soon she smiled and seriously dug into the cake for some more. I had never seen a person eat their very first piece of chocolate and having a sweet tooth myself, I studied the moment with utter fascination. What I saw in that little girl’s eyes the same thing I felt about Hakkai San when I first tried it…”I don’t know what this is, but it tastes good! I WILL want more.”

regardless of what it really tasted like, I guess you never forget your first piece of chocolate cake.

For getting me happily wrapped up in all this, Hakkai San gets my highest rating!
5 out of 5 Saké bottles!
[rate 5.0]

Show me the Momoya!

Momoya Chop Stick SleeveWe have all been there…Whether it’s being passed over for that promotion, getting splashed by a cab on a rainy day or finding that one-of-a-kind prized collectible you got on Ebay was smashed to bits by the post office, life can suck sometimes. Lucky for me, i’ve found that a few sips of sake is quite a magic tonic that can pull me back from the brink of dispair on those poopy days and, of course it reminds me that there are are things of beauty, complexity and refinement left to explore in the world. Well, 17% ALC content doesn’t hurt either.

Recently, I had to put my magic tonic to work to *eventually* help save a date night with my boyfriend that was quickly degrading into a disappointing evening for the both of us. It all started when we tried a new restaurant that was the worst ever. I mean ever… that’s saying a lot! Ok, It’s Tono Sushi on 7th ave and 20th. STAY AWAY! it’s bad. (Ok,OK! of course it was my suggestion to go there to try someplace “new”! geesh). After such a yucky dinner, scott and I both agreed that some sake would hit the spot and save the evening from total gastonomic ruin. we ran across the street the the wonderful Momoya japanese restaurant. One look inside and it was clear that we would be out of luck. The line waiting for tables was out the door and every table was taken. damn! well, ever the optimists, we set out across chesea looking for a cozy yummy place to have some sake and save the evening…
Veloce wine bar across from Momoya and next to yucky tono sushi has 3 kinds of sake on the menu (who knew?!) but the jam packed scene inside was not inspiring the ‘cozy yummy’ feel we were after. Neither did the tres tragique 20 year old chick outside taking a cigarette break from her merlot wearing a trucker hat that had the word “whatever” printed on it in a colorful faux-urban-graffiti style font. whatever indeed! onward.

our sake wanderings brought us to some other japanese place on 23rd and 8th…. but that place had a problem, too. The bar had these interesting hanging sake bottle lamps but the bottoms of the bottle were cut jagged to let the light flow down and seemed quite disquieting overhead. not my idea of cozy yummy, ( however, I do love the sake bottle lamp idea, minus the jagged edge) onward!

Cream Puff  says Next door on 23rd is the choux factory cream puff shop. by this point, I was quite tempted to discard my quest for sake and bury my sorrows in a gigantic japanese cream puff. ummm. creampuff… but… no… must escape…

Scott and I managed to break away from the gavatational pull of Choux factory
and were quite ready to give up and admit defeat. on the way home we walked one block out of our way to swing by Momoya once more. Lo and behold there was no line and OMG, there were tables free. as it turns out, we ended up walking around so much that it was now almost 10pm. magic!

So told the hostess we wanted to just order sake and the waitress was kind enough to give us a cozy table with a view. things were starting to look up! ok, so Scott and I had been here before and we’ve tried all the sakes they have by the glass. Scott ordered the $10 sake sampler and I got a small carafe of Wakatake Daigngo.

Momoya Sake SamplerFirst to Scott’s Sampler. This is an attractive selection of three unique sakes running from a Junmai to a nigori Ginjo.
First up is the junmai “Hoyo Manamusume” Momoya describes this as:

a welcome departure from harsh “dry” jumai sakes. Mild, soft and gently evocative. crafted from rare Manamusume rice grown only in miyagi prefecture.

This description fits the sake quite well. Scott and I both enjoyed it.

Next in the sampler is a Ginjo “Dewazakura Izumi Judan”. This is described as

a Martini-lover’s sake: dry clear and high octane with a hint of juniper reminiscent of tanquery. no other ginjo combines dryness and edginess to such exhilarating effect.

Yum, I enjoyed this ginjo quite a bit. Needless to say i’m a huge tanquery fan, so any sake with a hint of Gin is for me. This was my favorite of the 3.

Last is the unusual choice of a Nigori Ginjo.”Kamoizumi Nigori Ginjo”.

This premium unfiltered sake is rich creamy and brimming with exuberant flavor. Mildly sweet, yet surprisingly robust, it is an excellent introduction to the world of sake enjoyment

ok, unfiltered Nigori is not my favorite, but Scott is crazy for it and he loved the kamoisumi. for my taste, this nigori tasted a little ferment-y. but I enjoyed it more than my first time drinking it.

Wakatake Daiginjo - Small Carafe at Momoya. yumWhile scott was trying to enjoy his sampler as I was stealing sips from everything, I was enjoying my small carafe of Wakatake DaiGinjo. perfect! the presentation, color, aroma and taste are all wonderful. I was happy to sit back and relax and enjoy every sip of this redemptive carafe, like meeting up with an old friend. And before we knew it, the sake had worked it’s magic just as we’d hoped… our evening had gone from drab to fab and we polished it off with a little green tea mochi for good measure. nice way to end what became the cozy yummy perfect date night.

Blue bottles and sticky tables

Mineno HakubaiScott took me to a great place tonight: Poke! We ventured to this sushi place on the upper east side because there were high marks for the sushi in zagats. the other exciting thing was that that they don’t have their liquor license so they have a B.Y.O.S. policy. bring your own sake! So I did! I brought a Ginjo – mineno hakubai in a beautiful blue bottle and silver label. We were pumped!
Entering Poke, we found it to be a dirty little hole in the wall with three native Japanese sitting at the plywood sushibar. The white walls were smudged, the kitchen had plywood & screw shelving in plain view and the tables were… sticky.

I wanted to run, but we’d come a long way. so we stayed. We quickly figured out this place was not japanese run. Our waitress was a doll but we did have some communication problems. she kept asking us if we wanted “SHOE- SEE”. we finally figured it out and broke out our bottle of mineno hakubai. The sake immediately began to sooth my worries about Poke. It was a full, round flavor and just delicious. Once the sushi arrived we understood what Zagats was talking about. it was really really really good. Now the Sake really began to flow and I had a little trouble after a while pouring from that great big bottle into those tiny tiny cups they gave us. Maybe a sign I should have stopped pouring, but I forged ahead. This sake really grew on me throughout the evening. yeah! a new favorite ginjo! that’s good since it’s generally cheaper than Daigino — that’s not always true but can be. This is a sake that really lives up to it’s pretty bottle and label. it really DOES look as good as it tastes. yum.

My Sake rating for mineno hakubai:
4 out of 5 sake bottles
[rate 4.0]

How does rice impersonate grapes- Welch’s Sake?

Ok, never ever ever ever buy sake based on low price alone. I made this mistake this past weekend. I was at my favorite Sake shop Landmark with S. on sunday and I picked up a Nigori for thanksgiving. I wanted something else to sip on during the week after work, and I didn’t want to spend a ton. um, big mistake. Now, the guys at Landmark are great! They did not try and sell me this stuff, it was totally 100% my own choice. I’m seeing more and more you really get what you pay for. I got 500 ML for about $23. It’s a junmai. I feel my headache from tomorrow already pounding. So far I only have gotten hang overs from Junmai sake. I really think I’m safe here tho… look at the ALC content.

here are the stats:

Ichinokura “himenzen” sake: Junmai
8% ALC by volume

Ok, I’ll cut to the chase. this sake ain’t my bag. It takes like grape juice. Ok, I’ll give it some props… It is utterly amazing to me that rice can be made into something that tastes like $2 white wine that comes out of a cardboard box, but someone made it happen! The aroma of this sake is much better than the taste. the bottle says “rich type” “Citrus Flavor” ok, i don’t taste any citrus. I get grapes. no finish. Welch’s !
SO, I do have something to sip on after work this week… but I won’t be happy. You gotta kiss a lotta frogs before you find that prince of sakes

WANTED dead or alive in 7 states:
for impersonating Welch’s grape juice

My Saké Rating:
A lowly 1.5 saké bottles
[rate 1.5]