New York is crowded and hot. Yuck! what better reason to head out of the city and do a little “sake research”?
Zip across NJ and before you know it, you’re in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. I wanted to see how much sake lovin’ was going on in the city that bore witness to such world-changing events as the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the drafting of the US Constitution and the invention of the Cheese Steak Sandwich.
Our first stop on the road to Sakedelphia was perhaps the most well known Japanese restaurant in all of Pennsylvania, Morimoto. Masaharu Morimoto is best known as one of the Iron Chefs in both the US and Japanese versions of the program. He started his signature restaurant in Philly and later opened a New York Branch of Morimoto. I haven’t been to Morimoto New York, but the Philly branch rubbed me a bit the wrong way from the get-go. To start off with our waiter asked us if we liked both sushi and SHIshimi. (pet peeve alert! Jeez! I may not be fluent in Japanese yet, but even I know it’s SA-shi-mi.) In addition, everything in the restaurant is rigidly fixed in place…the tables and chairs are secured to the floor, the light on each table is bolted down. This signaled to me that you need to fit into this space, not the other way around. No disturbing the design or geometric layout, please. This inflexibility unfortunately extended to the sake menu. For the serious sakes on the menu there was only sake from one brewery, Fukumitsuya. and they offered one Morimoto Brand Junmai, one Ginjo and one Daiginjo. In the name of sake research, I went for the $30 tasting flight which gave me a two ounce vial of each.
The Fukumitsuya was mostly good, but nothing special. Each grade I tried was a fair representative of it’s class… the Junmai was hearty, the ginjo a bit more mellow and open (however, I also found it the most unbalanced of the three) and the Dainginjo more floral and delicate. The limited and restrictive Morimoto sake menu reminded me of my Matt Damon dominated birthday dinner at Nobu, (p.s. Chef Morimoto was executive chef at Nobu for a few years.) also a restaurant that restricts it’s sake to one ‘branded’ Brewery. What’s up with this anyway? Are the chefs so wedded to having a Nobu or Morimoto branded sake? or are they “helping” their customers by only offering one simple sake option? Reminds me of that time I went shopping in an East German supermarket… one brand of coffee, cola or milk for sale – take it or leave it. In the final analysis, Morimoto wasn’t bad – actually the SHIshimi was the best part of the meal – but for the cost and all the hoopla, I was hoping for something a little more special.
After dinner, we walked around historic Old City. Just after we bumped into Ben Franklin, (for real!) we happened upon another japanese restaurant – Haru. Now, this restaurant launched from New York to Philadelphia – just the reverse of Morimoto. I peeked at the menu which looked good and checked out their tiny sake listing. Sakes offered by the glass included sho chiku bai junmai (US made), Yaegaki junmai (US made), Kaori Ginjo, Yamadanishiki Ginjo and a Zuicho Daiginjo . Scott and I didn’t get a chance to eat here, but the staff seemed friendly however, the small and somewhat US-made sake list didn’t warrant a return.
On our second night out on the search for sake, we turned to Zagat for some insight into japanese cuisine in Philadelphia. Shiroi Hana was comparatively highly rated by philadelphians so, going by Zagat alone, we picked that as our next dinner spot. Wat a mistake! This wasn’t a Japanese run sushi establishment and the utter disregard for sake of any importance on the menu disappointed. The menu offered “hot” sake and “cold” sake and a gekkikan daiginjo by the bottle. ouch! I actually went with the Diet Coke in protest. The food was so-so and the lack of any interesting premium sake made me weep silently. E tu Zagat?
Our last night was winding to a close and so far Philly was getting pretty low marks for sake friendliness. On our way back to the hotel from Shiroi Hana, we were going to pass one more restaurant called Fuji Mountain that supposedly had sake on the menu. We decided to stop in for dessert and some sake to check it out.
Fuji Mountain was, in a word, terrific! This place was a real find and saved Philly’s sake rep from the Hall of Shame at the 11th hour. The guys at Fuji Mountain recently put a new and expansive sake menu together. The best thing was the decision of offer a large selection of 300ml bottles. these small bottles keep sake sealed and at it’s freshest and are great for one or two people. The selection of 25 sakes offered was well put together and broken down into ‘Semi-Dry’, ‘Dry’, ‘Extra Dry’ and ‘Unique and Interesting’ sections – here is look at some of the sake offerings the night I was there:
Dassai Junmai Ginjo, Matushima Junmai, Kikusui Junmai Ginjo, Karakuchi Honjozo, Tokeseu Gold Daiginjo, Dassai Nigori. Yum, some good stuff!
I ordered one of my favorites, the Hakkaisan Ginjo (Hakkaisan Brewery Co., Niigata Prefecture, SMV +5, Acidity 1.0, ALC 15.5%). It was delicious – smooth and round in flavor. most drinkable! And if that wasn’t enough, Fuji Mountain also has a full-on Sake lounge upstairs and a separate Karaoke room to rent. I think the efforts of the guys at Fuji Mountain are a great first step on the road to full blown sake revolution in Philly. Now that’s a fight i’ll sign on for!