Sake By The Bay
story by Patricia Unterman
I had not tasted a fine sake before, and I have no idea what I drank that night, but it was love at first sip. Who knew that sake could be so aromatic and so ethereal yet long in the finishso complete. Finally, I had found the perfect match for the exquisite sushi and sashimi that was becoming available in San Francisco. But finding these artisan sakes and tasting enough of them to cultivate my palate turned out to be a challenge; they simply weren’t available.
My first stop was Ozumo (415-882-1333), an extravagant sushi bar, robata grill and sake lounge, which has become one of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco since it opened a little over a year ago. Owned by Jeremy James, a former college baseball pitcher who played professionally for the Seibu Lions, Ozumo is the product of his love affair with all things Japanese. He hired Tokyo designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu to design a lyrical space using only the natural materials of a Japanese tea gardenstone, wood and paper. I entered the dark sake bar at the front and followed a "garden path" through the restaurant to the radiant, airy dining room at the back, which looks across the Embarcadero to the bay.
The entire surroundings are a statement of comfort, luxury, simplicity and peace. I sat at the sushi bar and ordered Chef Sho Kamio’s inventive Yokozuna Roll, an exploration of foods within a quiet flavor rangegrilled unagi (eel), fresh crab, crunchy flying-fish roe, avocado and asparagus, all bound in seaweed and surrounded by a thin layer of rice, then wrapped in papery yellow soybean skin. Each bite told a little story about texture and modulations in taste. Intriguingly smoky wood-grilled snap peas, zucchini and Japanese eggplant came from the robata, as did a velvety chunk of miso-sake-marinated black cod, deliciously caramelized where the fire licked the flesh.
To accompany these dishes, I sipped a flight of artisan sakes of graduating refinement, based on the degree of polishing applied to the rice grains from which they are brewed: a junmai (superior), a ginjo (premium) and a daiginjo (ultra-premium). Each was poured into a small glass and presented in a little wooden rack with an accompanying description, so I was able to compare each sake along with each dish. I loved the gentle Masumi "Okuden Kantsukuri" with the otherworldly Yokozuna Roll, the fruity Dewazakura "Dewasansan" with the vegetables, and the complex Kamoizumi "Daiginjo" with the fish. In all honesty, I actually thought the least technically refined of the threethe Masumi junmaiworked the best with everything, so I ordered tastes of several other junmais, including Kurasawa "Kimoto"a light, floral sake with a clean finish that struck me as ideal. For dessert, I concluded with Chef Kamio’s loveable "Japanese Twins"house-made black sesame ice cream and macha/sencha green tea sorbet with a dab of warm azuki bean jam. The meal was glorious, and I walked home, up Telegraph Hill, practically floating, energized and excited by my journey into new culinary territory.
I began my Grasshopper meal with tiny dishes of large, crisp cashews coated with sugar and cumin, and turmeric-tinted pickles of cauliflower, red onion and turnip. The toasty, spicy and tart sensations tuned up my palate, along with a well-balanced junmai chosen from the helpfully annotated sake list. My next choicesa bracing, super-fresh tuna poke, its citrusy overtones contrasting with pungent sesame oil, and a pile of irresistible crunchy fried calamari with a chile-flecked lime sambal dipping saucewent with a bigger sake: a Masumi "Arabashiri" ginjo namazake. This is a rare unpasteurized and unfiltered first pressing of the year’s first sake, available only a short time after brewing.
Yet another type of sake was called for by Grasshopper’s tender, garlicky gyoza Japanese pot-stickershandsomely browned on one side, and miso-marinated rib-eye steak with grilled broccoli rabe, a spectacular combination in which the slightly bitter bite of the broccoli underscored the richness of the beef. With these, a versatile Dewazakura daiginjo with a floral nose that also insinuated bananas and cantaloupe, with a hint of citrus at the end, worked magically well.
At Grasshopper, I always save room for dessert, Western in form but tropical and exotic in flavor. This time, my table dueled over a kaffir lime tart with a subtle, sour edge that cut the sweetness of a fluffy meringue topping; a trio of off-beat avocado, persimmon and apple sorbets; and the most elegant dessert of all: coconut tapioca pudding topped with lemony basil granita and a miniscule dice of tropical fruits.
Among the many choices of drinkexotic cocktails; draft rice ales; beers from Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan; Chinese liquors; New World wines and rare teas brewed in cast-iron tea potsare chilled artisan sakes, which have grown in popularity as they have become more available and accessible to English speakers. Chef Andrew Ong took me on an Asian culinary tour accompanied by seven different sakes. The climax of the evening, a whole crispy tai snapper seemingly jumping out of a pool of sweet black-bean sauce full of roasted garlic and hot chiles, paired with a big, voluptuous Akitabare "Suirakuten" daiginjo, turned out to be one of those taste memories that go straight into the bank; I wanted those flavors to go on forever.
My pursuit of sake took me all around the bay. In Sausalito, I made a pilgrimage to the multifaceted Sushi Ran (415-332-3620), which has played the role of Bay Area sake pioneer, with an extensive and poetically annotated sake list. Back in San Francisco, I dropped into the Anzu Sushi Bar at the Hotel Nikko (415-394-1111), where the sushi master, Mr. Takahashi, told me that visitors from Japan are always amazed to find rare sakes from tiny breweries that are scarce even at home.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder what had inspired Kantor to pair these eloquent, refined sakes with his earthy, down-home food. "The long, slow cooking of my barbecue is similar to the long, slow brewing of sake," he told me. "They’re both traditional arts."
Maybe so, but somehow, I couldn’t help comparing the disjointed experience here to that soaring culinary moment at Kyoya years ago. After my eclectic Bay Area sake immersion, I came to the conclusion that the ultimate match-ups of artisan sakes happen with clean foods based on ingredients within a narrow flavor range. Laboriously handcrafted sakes are so nuanced, so delicately layered and complex, that they belong with dishes that don’t overpower them.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying these premium hand-made sakes with untraditional foods. Adventuresome restaurateurs and fine sake importers are mapping out new sake worlds with greater and greater latitude, and now that the door to these artisan sakes has finally opened for us in San Francisco, I’m ready to enter no matter where it leads.
Bay Area food writer Patricia Unterman is a restaurant critic for the San Francisco Examiner, author of The Food Lovers Guide to San Francisco and co-owner of the Hayes Street Grill.