Last night Andy and I attended a dinner that showcased an array of sakés produced by SakéOne, the United States’ only producer of that quintessential Japanese beverage. Cooked up by Chef Jet Tila, groovy Thai chef and personality extraordinaire, the meal featured five flavorful courses: red miso; oshi sushi; tofu and bonito salad; marinated cod over soba noodles; and teriyaki chicken from Jet’s stash of family recipes.
Each course was accompanied by a different saké, and everything was delectable. Each saké enhanced the fine food. Each dish enhanced the fine saké.
Marinated black cod with edamame, served over a bed of soba: Most of my past exposure to cod has been either baccalà or fillets battered and fried and served with chips. But a two-day bath in saké produces a buttery, delicate cod that will make you forget all about frying. The Momokawa Ruby we drank with it brought out the sweetness in the dish. And the dish returned the favor.
But the really cool thing about the experience is that while we sampled five sakés, it was akin to trying ten, for each saké had two flavors—one before we began eating each course, and another while we were eating. The flavors in each dish drew out flavors inherent in its appointed saké--like magic!
Our sakés were served chilled and in wine glasses, from which we could inhale their varied and wonderful fragrances. No tiny cups in sight. It was a great introduction to what, for us, is only slightly familiar territory.
A lot of attitudes and ideas about saké spring not from actually tasting it but from hearing other people’s stories, whether they're original or secondhand. How do you categorize it? Is it a beer or a wine? It’s brewed, like beer, but its alcohol content is more on a par with that of wine. And how do you serve it? Hot or cold? (It turns out that while heating saké can help take the edge off a chilly day, it's essentially an old trick used to make a poor saké a little more palatable.)
In the end, it really doesn’t matter. Saké is its own animal with its own tales and traditions. Legend has it that the beverage was originally made by employing virgins to chew the grains of rice, the idea being that an enzyme in their saliva helped kick off the fermentation process. Whether or not there’s any truth to it, it’s a great story. And only extraordinary foods and beverages—and people!—tend to come with such folklore attached.
*Many thanks to Chef Evan Kleiman and Angeli Caffé for hosting a great evening.
Speaking of extraordinary people, I enjoyed this tasty, leisurely meal--and lots of great chat--with Barbara Hansen, of TableConversation.com and former Los Angeles Times food writer, and Chef Jet Tila. Jet credits Barbara with propelling him into the professional food world.