Ozumo I Clio I Koi I Jewel Bako

Where do the real sake fans find what they're looking for? Not that old, hot, smells-like-petroleum, zap-it-in-the-microwave stuff you remember from bad sushi joints in the past, but the kind of sake that sings with the same complexity as great wine?
   It's out there: you just have to look. This month we've tracked down four places around the country that are pushing the frontiers of sake service, offering tasting flights, giving serious thought to how different sakes, from top producers, work with their cuisine. It's a movement that's growing.
   Note that sake isn't just for Japanese cuisine anymore, either. Roger Dagorn, Master Sommelier and maitre d' at Manhattan's Chanterelle, almost always includes at least one sake among the wine pairings that accompany the restaurant's prix-fixe tasting menus. Chanterelle's cuisine is contemporary French, though as Dagorn notes, "Nowadays that line has been crossed quite a bit. We use ingredients from all over - North Africa, China, Japan - and anything that has a certain Asian touch is already a good pairing for sake."
   On a recent menu Dagorn paired a Kaika Kazenoichirin junmai daiginjo with a salad of sea urchin, crab and shrimp, drizzled with pistachio oil vinaigrette and served with grapefruit. "There's no wine that works well with that dish, but sake does," he says. "Often sake's lack of acidity means that it works well with a dish that has a fair amount of acidity. You could possibly do a Champagne, but for this, sake is just perfect."
   Admittedly, some dishes are not sake-friendly: For rich stews or heavy roasts, bring on the Bordeaux. But Dagorn has even paired aged sakes with lamb and venison, in milder, more delicate preparations, with good results.
   "These days people are less hesitant to experiment," he says. "When it comes to sake, I don't convince everybody, but I do convince a good number. And on our tasting menu, when I go back to the table and ask them what our favorite pairing is, many times it's the one using sake."

> Ozumo I San Francisco
Giants fans at San Francisco's PacBell Park have been scarfing down yellowtail in the bleachers for the past several seasons, so it should come as no surprise to learn that ex-ball player Jeremy James, who made his way in the Japan Leagues, has a contemporary Japanese restaurant not half a mile away. When James returned home after a twelve-year career, he brought along a respect for fine Japanese cuisine, and consequently convinced Super Potato Co., a Japanese restaurant design group, to commission their first venture in the US.
   Ozumo calls itself a sushi bar, a robata grill and a sake lounge, but what stands out most is the impressive sake list, some thirty-four strong, with most available by the glass.
   Except for a nod toward tempura and a pristine selection of sushi, Executive Chef Sho Kamio's menu moves well beyond traditional Japanese fare. Dishes like unagi san (grilled freshwater eel and Sonoma foie gras with a Grand Marnier sauce) or futago (thinly sliced beef tenderloin, garlic sautˇed spinach and Japanese eggplant drizzled with miso-sesame sauce) give a hint that you're not in Kyoto anymore. Though this may sound suspiciously like 'fusion,' that dreaded late-eighties miasma of tastes, Chef Kamio's entire menu is really more an ode to umami, the elusive earthy fifth taste; and the only fusion at work here is a fusion of sensual textures and savory elements. And for each of these little umami sonatas, Ozumo's sake mistress, the aptly-named Harmony Niles, has a sake to pair.
   Remember umami when you take your next sip of sake. As a grain beverage, sake has no real fruit component to speak of, the way wine does. Nor does it always taste like grain. Instead, good sake is as much about texture as flavor, which makes it ideal for pairing with foods high in umami content.
   On one recent evening Niles presented two Dewazakura, one a ginjo (which like most sakes is pasteurized), the other an unpasteurized namazake. She paired these with a single kumomoto oyster served with a dollop of uni, alongside a kaiso salad of fresh Japanese seaweed. The ginjo tasted clean and lightly barleyed; the namazake on its own almost feral, ungainly and a little muddled - until put against food. Suddenly the more refined ginjo felt wan in the mouth, while all of the ungainly features of the namazake came into shape and gave contours to an otherwise amorphous mouthful. Umami meets umami: this is what you can expect at Ozumo.
Ozumo, 161 Steaurt St., San Francisco, CA; 415-882-1333
- Michael Kinney & Patrick J. Comiskey


> Clio I Boston
Boston Chef Ken Oringer of Clio wasn't awarded the 2001 James Beard award for "Best Chef in the Northeast" for timidity. Oringer's been thumbing his nose at the conservative class here since he opened in 1997, charging a fortune for diminutive dishes sprinkled with esoteric ingredients, such as argan oil, bee pollen and onion seeds. That's why news of his opening a sashimi bar last year in the former lounge at Clio got so much buzz, as locals wondered what he could possibly do better than a Japanese master sushi chef. Plenty, apparently. Oringer sources exotic edibles from Ecuador to the South China Sea, seafood so fresh, he'll tell you, that when he shucks scallops in front of guests, "the scallop buckles away from the salt as it is applied."
   Naturally, oenophiles want to know what to pair with this nearly live bait. The answer is sake, which is why sommelier Beth Iannicelli went on a tasting mission. "I had to learn a whole new vocabulary," she says, "and relearn the flavors of rice, as opposed to grapes." Iannicelli, along with Oringer and sashimi bar chef Nathan Tasato, tasted at least 60 sakes over several months to find a manageable range of ten for their list, with the finalists chosen for their affinity with Clio's food. "Much like wine, we can pair dry and crisp and fragrant sakes with delicate dishes," Tasato explains, "such as the Y Sake 'Snow' daiginjo nigori, which goes well with our with fried tempura and its soy-dashi dipping sauce and miso aioli." Iannicelli, who eschews warm sake, feeling that it masks flaws, lists her chilled sakes under sensual headings. For instance, under "Fragrant" she suggests a Ken daiginjo from Fukushima; under "Light & Smooth," Hakushika junmai ginjo from Hyogo.
   "The demand," says Iannicelli, "has been tremendous. Ninety percent of the people who come to the lounge drink sake with their meals, and then they move on to sake cocktails, such as our 'Silk Kimono' (Momokawa Asian pear-infused sake, Midori and orange juice) or our 'Ginko-Bai' (plum-infused sake with Spicy Mountain Peach Tea)." Training the staff to understand sake has been crucial, too; Iannicelli says that the waitstaff's confidence has proven invaluable. "We don't do flights," says Iannicelli, "but the waiters are fantastic about encouraging tables to try several styles - depending on what they order - served in 2-ounce or 3-ounce bamboo cups that everyone shares." Perhaps the ultimate test of the sake program's success has been its migration into the main dining room. "Ken's menu upstairs often includes a sashimi special or a sashimi tasting," Iannicelli notes, "and many diners, without prompting, are now asking for sakes they've tasted down here."
Clio, 370 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, MA; 617-536-7200
- Anthony Giglio


> Koi I Los Angeles
As in many Los Angeles restaurants, Koi's decor is as dramatic as a movie set. Even before you officially enter, you pass through a Japanese courtyard with two still pools of water, lots of bamboo and a blazing outdoor fireplace adorned with a giant Buddha's head.
   But what separates Koi from the hundreds of Asian restaurants in LA isn't just the decor; it's the breadth of the cuisine and the staff's impressive knowledge of wine and sake. Not only are there six sushi chefs working at the bar at one time, there's also executive chef Rodelio Aglibot busy behind the scenes creating dishes like a smooth, rich, uni risotto, with seared Japanese scallops and a truffle vinaigrette; flavorful miso-ginger glazed Alaskan king crab legs; or the popular grilled skirt steak marinated for hours in sake and soy and served with a rich, nutty sesame sauce. "Balance is what I strive for in every dish. There are never more than four flavors going on, otherwise it's too overwhelming," says Aglibot, who uses sake in his cooking the way other chefs might use wine. "Because I make sure there are distinct yet balanced flavors in everything I prepare, the dishes are very easily paired with sake, beer or wine. I look at these pairings as enhancing the food, giving it yet another dimension."
   When it comes to the sake, Andrew Spence, general manager and one-time sommelier at Melisse in Santa Monica, is the mind behind the list. Spence instituted a sake program shortly after the restaurant opened offering over thirty varieties, and when he describes them, you're reminded that yes, this man was indeed a sommelier: "Your palate learns the flavor profile just like with wine. I smell cherry blossoms, sometimes oak, sometimes honeydew."
   To keep the sake flowing, Spence offers flights for the curious, making sure that none of his rare stock hangs around too long. His collection includes, among others, the Masumi Yumedono daiginjo, or "mansion of dreams," only 800 bottles of which are imported to the US each year, as well as slightly less expensive but equally interesting offerings like the caramel-nuanced Nishida Kikuizumi ginjo or Koshi No Kanbai Tokusen ginjo, known as the "phantom sake" for its elusive taste: It begins bone dry, then becomes gently herbaceous and mossy, finishing with a suggestion of white truffle.
   Put yourself in Spence's care for the evening and begin with Komekome, so light and unobtrusive that it works beautifully as an apˇritif. Koi boasts the West Coast exclusive on this sake, and Spence likes pairing it with spicy appetizers like Aglibot's addictive crispy rice topped with spicy tuna, or with a rich Hudson Valley foie gras served with seared scallops in a delicate plum sauce. Another Spence suggestion is the mild Akitabare, with its notes of melon and muscat, against a tuna sashimi served with garlic chips.
   As for the rationale behind these pairings, in some ways it seems Spence's pairing decisions are based more on instinct than science. He explains: "First you read the customer, then you gauge their level of curiosity, then you examine their menu choices, and only at that point are you finally able to decide how you would like them to interpret their meal." This process may sound a bit hazy, but then you taste the pairings Spence creates, and any doubts you had vanish.
Koi, 730 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA; 310-659-9449
- Jessica Strand


> Jewel Bako I New York
Jewel Bako is all about precision. It is the antithesis of the American fondness for more, bigger, lots, stuff-me-so-full-I'm-groaning cuisine. Of course, Japanese cuisine on the whole runs in that realm (if the Japanese were statistically as fat as we are, no one in Tokyo could breathe), but Jewel Bako gives the spare perfection of a single piece of fish a religious aura; all the stranger, then, that the owner, Jack Lamb, isn't Japanese.
   Lamb spent several years as assistant maitre d' at Bouley Bakery, working for David Bouley, a perfectionist if there ever was one. Evidently Lamb is someone who understands that God (or a 4-star rating) is in the details. Jewel Bako, also, is all about details.
   And, at Jewel Bako, when the server sets down that single ineffable communion wafer of perfect toro in front of you, what do you do? Do you glug down a swig of monster zin, smack your lips, and pop it in your mouth? Get a grip, cheeseboy. Ask for the sake.
   Let's be serious for a moment: A Minowamon daiginjo paired with Jewel Bako's tuna tartare is one of the best wine and food pairings I've ever run into. Admittedly, this is a sake that Lamb refers to as "The DRC of sakes, at least in my opinion," but objective quality aside, it also works. The graceful, light, floral sweetness of the sake plays perfectly against the lush depth of the tuna tartare, spiked with baby ginger and capers, smoothed by a disk of avocado. For every moment of piquancy there's one of serenity - now that's a pairing.
   Lamb keeps 20 or so sakes on his list, primarily from artisan producers. "It's easy to find extremely expensive sake just as it's easy to find extremely expensive wine," he says, "but what's more interesting are the small producers, who aren't necessarily very expensive but are very distinctive."
   Against the omakase tasting menu (the way to go here, though admittedly a jolt to the bank account), Lamb will pair a tasting flight of sakes, beginning with a milky sweet-sour nigori as an aperitif, moving to a miniature sip of Kan No Mai, or "dancing gods," a supple sake made expressly for Jewel Bako in Japan, then on to pairings like a Yashiorino junmai koshu, aged eight years in Japanese cedar; it plays perfectly against Jewel Bako's red miso soup. "Aged sakes work very well with hot foods," Lamb claims, and he's right: the tinge of wood and oxidation deepens the miso's mushroomy, earthy depth (red miso tends to have an "earthier, darker, peatier character than white miso," Lamb says).
   Lamb is happy to expound on the nature of the various sakes as he glides around the small space here. And even for those not taking the tasting flight, he'll pour a couple of different tastes, allowing patrons to learn which sakes they prefer. He also keeps a packet of polished rice in his breast pocket, with three compartments, a quick visual tool to explain the differences between junmai, ginjo and daiginjo. "There are over 10,000 different sakes in Japan," he observes, "but it's amazing how many of those are now available here, even from the smaller producers. And there's absolutely a growing interest in sake. Absolutely," he repeats, and then, hailed by yet another sake-adventurer, is off to the next table.
Jewel Bako 239 E. 5th St., New York, NY; 212-979-1012
- Ray Isle