Issue 6.1: February/March 2003

Sake By The Bay



story by Patricia Unterman
photos by  Dana Edmunds

The moment of revelation hit me by surprise. This was maybe ten years ago, and I was sitting at the blond sushi bar at Kyoya (415-546-5090), a branch of a Tokyo restaurant in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, anticipating a piece of sushi made with a live scallop. The sushi chef pried open the huge, ridged shell, scraped out the white muscle, sliced it into opalescent rounds and draped one over a tiny pallet of barely adhering rice. I popped one into my mouth and took a sip of chilled sake from a crystal tumbler, recommended by the kimono-clad waitress. The ephemeral sweetness of the sake bonded with the naturally sweet scallop. Its melony fragrance waltzed with the tropical fruitiness of the shellfish, and the whole duet slid to a graceful finish with a citrusy/briny flourish. As in all great pairings of food and drink, the sake enlarged the properties of the scallop, making it more scallopy, and the scallop amplified the sake, revealing its character.

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 finish—so 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.

Two views of Ozumo
Now that is changing. In the last few years, a handful of restaurants have begun offering the opportunity not just to drink fine sakes, but to learn about them, too. In fact, some of the most exciting new restaurants in the Bay Area have made sake part of their identities. So, recently—with my memories of that wonderful night at Kyoya in mind—I decided to set off on a little sake journey, to explore artisan sake destinations in my hometown.

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 garden—stone, 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 range—grilled 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.

Kyoya interior

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 three—the Masumi junmai—worked 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.

Pleasure on the half
shell at Grasshopper

My next stop took me across the bay to Grasshopper (510-595-3559), also just over a year old. Grasshopper is a lively sakana (small-plate) restaurant located in a high-ceilinged, wood-framed space on the Berkeley-Oakland border. Three Bay Area restaurant veterans—chef/owners Crossley Smith and Donald Dellis, and sake aficionado Frank Freitas—created a delectable pan-Asian menu for this highly accomplished, hugely entertaining restaurant. Freitas turned his partners on to sake, and they traveled together to Japan to taste the foods that traditionally go with it. But Smith and Dellis took a detour to Southeast Asia and couldn’t get enough of the vibrant street foods there, so they incorporated these into their inventive Asian menu, and it turns out these spicier dishes, too, have their sake counterparts.

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 choices—a 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 sauce—went 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-stickers—handsomely 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.

Next on my list came the wildly popular Betelnut (415-929-8855) on Union Street in San Francisco, which has been creating its own lusty version of pan-Asian food for seven years. The Raffles-like bar and clubby restaurant calls itself a peiju-wu, an Asian beer house, and offers a menu of hot, salty, big-flavored dishes that work up a thirst.

Among the many choices of drink—exotic cocktails; draft rice ales; beers from Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan; Chinese liquors; New World wines and rare teas brewed in cast-iron tea pots—are 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.

Memphis Minnie's

Probably my most unexpected sake experience was at a barbecue joint called Memphis Minnie’s (415-864-7675) in the funky lower Haight. Having fallen in love with sake himself, owner Bob Kantor offers six elegant artisan sakes, by the glass or in tasting flights, to drink with his restaurant’s oak-wood-smoked meats and Southern side dishes. The pickled-cabbage coleslaw at Minnie’s, which reminded me of a Japanese salad, and the moist, not-too-smoky barbecued chicken tasted surprisingly good with Masumi "Arabashiri," namazake with enough body and finish to stand up to ’que.

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.

Racking up the flavors at Ozumo

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.