You’ve mastered single-malt and bested craft beer; you’ve even solved the mysteries of mezcal and speak reasonable rum. But what of that clear — and clearly baffling — Japanese rice beverage called sake? Most of us vaguely remember blurry nights filled with dragon rolls and rounds of hot sake, sometimes served in wooden boxes, but lately Japanese restaurants and sushi bars have been trying to tout the finer points of the brew, which is made with nothing but rice, water, yeast and a mold called koji. In fact, sake stands close to beer and wine in terms of its artisanal process and food-friendliness, if you can get your head around a whole host of new terms and labels. And maybe a few hangovers.
Here are three restaurants pouring quality sake to pair with traditional Japanese cuisine, helping curious customers navigate their way through an experience far more rewarding than gulping cheap sake to wash down cream-cheese-filled Philadelphia rolls.
1501 South Pearl Street
For the past six months, Ototo owners Yasu and Toshi Kizaki (who also own Sushi Den and Izakaya Den) have been hosting monthly sake-pairing dinners to educate guests on the somewhat confusing world of sake production, labeling and drinking. The pairing dinners offer rare and expensive tastes of some of Japan’s top brands, and reservations are usually snapped up quickly despite their hefty price tags. But you can also drop by on your own time and create your own pairings. Choose from Ototo’s array of small plates and order a flight of sakes, which allows you to sample the way the flavor compounds in the beverage bring out the best in food.
You’ll see many new words on both the sake labels and Ototo’s menu, from the brewer and sake names — like Suigei Drunken Whale or Dassai 50 Otter Festival (sold! — based on the name alone) — to descriptors that help narrow down the way in which the sake was made, which affects the resulting flavor profile: junmai, ginjo, daiginjo and honjozo, for example, sometimes in combination. It helps to know that sake rice is milled to remove the outer layer of the grain so that the starchy center makes up a greater percentage of the fermentable grain. Ginjo sake has been milled down to a specific percentage, and daiginjo has been milled even further, so that the resulting sake is usually lighter and cleaner-tasting — and more expensive, since more rice must be used to brew each batch. Junmai just means “pure,” signifying that no additional alcohol was added (a common sake practice). Ototo’s sake menu does the diner one additional favor: The acidity level and sake meter value — or SMV — are also included. Lower SMV numbers (going into negative values, even) signify a sweeter sake, and lower acidity numbers indicate a lighter, less rich drink. Can’t remember all this? Ototo’s drink menu includes a brief rundown of Japanese terms and sake styles to make decisions a little easier.
You can choose a flight and ask your server for food-pairing recommendations, or you can go it on your own, knowing that sake is a fairly forgiving tipple that complements food well in nearly every case. You wouldn’t go wrong matching sashimi from Ototo’s catch-of-the-day list or pairing a mild hamachi carpaccio with a light, dry junmai ginjo sake like Hakkasian Hakkai Mountain. For a more robust match, try grilled pork belly or freshwater eel from the binchotan grill and a cedar-barrel-aged sake.
With more than a dozen sakes by the glass, ranging from $6 to more than $30, the pairing options seem nearly unlimited. So it’s best to come in a group, which is the way sake is enjoyed in Japan. If you order by the bottle, pour for your friends and family, but never pour your own. “If you do, it means no one cares about you,” Yasu Kizaki jokes. “When you drink sake, you become joyous, you become happier.”
In June, the Kizakis will host a benefit sake dinner to raise money to rebuild their home town of Kumamoto, where a series of earthquakes has destroyed homes and historic buildings, including the Kumamoto Castle, which was built more than 500 years ago. Call Ototo for details on the date, time and price of the dinner.
Cherry Hills Sushi Co.
1400 East Hampden Avenue
Cherry Hills Sushi Co. opened in a nondescript shopping center in Cherry Hills Village in January, and quickly began attracting customers with its deceptively simple menu of hand rolls and sashimi, bolstered by an impressive slate of sake and Japanese whisky and beer. Chef/owner Bradford Kim maintains a list of more than twenty sakes in large and small bottles, a handful by the glass, and several sake flights of three pours each running from $9 to $28 (with more expensive, off-menu flights available on request).
The restaurant’s decor is as minimalist as the menu itself. There are no glass seafood cases or stacks of plates cluttering the bar, so you sit face-to-face with your sushi chef. A selection of perhaps ten hand rolls and another ten sashimi options make up the entire menu, other than occasional chef’s specials. Hand rolls are served one at a time to maintain the balance of warm rice, cool fish and crisp nori wrapper.
It’s the perfect environment for concentrating on the lean flavors and subtle aromas of sake, but Kim isn’t too caught up in the sniffing, swirling and frowning that generally accompanies wine tastings. Like Ototo’s
Yasu Kizaki, he notes that sake is a social beverage that elevates food without being fussy. So you can order a few hand rolls, get a flight of three nigori (unfiltered) sakes for only $9, and enjoy the thicker mouthfeel and rustic profile of the cloudy drink. At the $21 level, a flight comes with bright, clean sakes that bring out the heat in a spicy shrimp roll while playing off the fat in a piece of salmon.
If you’re sharing with friends (and why wouldn’t you be?), pair an eighteen-piece sashimi sampler platter with a 720-milliliter bottle of Suijun Junmai God of Water at $55 or Rihaku Junmai Ginjo Wandering Poet at $70. Fair warning: While the price is similar to that of a nice bottle of wine, sake is generally higher in alcohol, usually in the 15-to-20-percent range.
2930 Umatilla Street
Sushi Ronin hit Denver the same month that Cherry Hills Sushi Co. opened, but the styles of the two restaurants couldn’t be more different. Where the southern sushi bar is spartan and bright, Sushi Ronin feels swanky and decadent, with a glowing amber bar top, wood-paneled ceilings, and servers clad in black who pad quietly among the tables with a hushed sense of reverence. But a seat at the bar (the one with all the booze, not the sushi bar) is a little less restrained, and bar manager Josh Beausang will be happy to ply you with sake and all the information you need in order to enjoy it.
Sushi Ronin has a modern, airtight wine-dispensing system for pouring glasses at the perfect temperature without risk of oxidation. Three taps are also reserved for a rotating list of sakes by the glass and usually include a junmai, junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo. Ordering one of each can rack up a big tab fairly quickly, so sharing with a friend is a wise choice. And chef/owner Corey Baker’s broad menu of traditional dishes lets you explore flavors far beyond simple rice and raw fish, so it helps to order in bulk there, too.
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Bolder sake, such as the Ozeki junmai, matches well with adobo-marinated karaage (boneless fried chicken), while the drier Enter BlackDot ginjo won’t overwhelm raw-fish dishes like the mild but strange (for Westerners, at least) yamakake, made with diced maguro tuna, a raw quail-egg yolk and a seriously slimy mound of grated yamaimo (Japanese mountain yam). The subtle flavors of the dish combine beautifully with sake, though the texture takes some getting used to. (The yamakake is difficult to scoop up, even with a big ceramic spoon.) Ronin stocks an extensive collection of sakes at a broad range of prices, so you can either easily drop a hundred or two on a good bottle or spend a few bucks on a can of Ikezo sparkling peach jelly sake (yes, there are soft cubes of jelly in the can) for dessert.
Sake doesn’t have to be sacred or scary; a growing number of beverage professionals in this city will navigate you through a new world of names and flavors. At any of these three places, you need only describe your tastes and your hosts will come up with something you’re certain to enjoy — good sake, for goodness’ sake.