The pale yellow walls of French restaurant Tocqueville in New York are reminiscent of a southern European eatery, and its food and service have earned it a lofty rating in the Zagat guide. As expected, the restaurant employs a sommelier: Hiromi Kiyama.
At lunch one day, film industry worker Alvaro Gomez ordered an asparagus and truffle hors d'oeuvre. The tipple that Kiyama recommended came from Hokkaido.
"It has an inherently gentle acidity and rice flavor and is produced using traditional methods from the Edo Period," Kiyama said.
The drink was a “junmai-shu” (sake produced only from rice, water and koji mold) named Kimoto, made by the Otokoyama Sake brewery in Asahikawa.
"The bitterness of the asparagus reacts wonderfully with the acidity of the sake," Gomez said. "It goes well with the powerful aroma of the truffles, too.”
Kiyama is just 36 years old and was only hired in spring. She earned the position for her knowledge of wine--and sake.
In New York, sake consumption is spreading beyond purveyors of Japanese fare and is even making inroads into restaurants serving French and American cuisine. But turning the average American consumer on to sake remains a slow process.
Japan's sake exports have almost doubled in the last 10 years, but they still only account for just over 2 percent of Japan's annual sake shipping volume, which is about 600,000 kiloliters.
The amount of sake sent to the United States, a country with a population 2.5 times that of Japan, is only equivalent to the volume consumed annually in Tokushima Prefecture and accounts for around 0.1 percent of U.S. wine consumption.
One reason why it is taking so long for sake to gain acceptance in the United States is that the drink is viewed as “supplementary” to wine. At Tocqueville, near Union Square, sake and wine are served in combinations, but the restaurant stocks around 300 wine brands compared with only five to 10 brands of sake.
"The word sake has become more familiar, but there are still times when I have to explain that it's rice wine," Kiyama says.
For one course, Kiyama started with sparkling wine and served sake part way through the meal. The complement for the final dish of cheese was white wine.
Another person trying to chip away at wine's dominance is Seju Yang, 29, a South Korean who grew up in Osaka. He now works as a wine and sake sommelier at Brushstroke, a “kaiseki” (traditional Japanese multi-course cuisine) restaurant opened by distinguished New York-based French chef David Bouley in April 2011.
Although Japanese dishes are the restaurant's specialty, its wine selection is four times larger than its sake lineup.
"Connoisseurs of fine food first describe the taste of their favorite wine, then they ask me to recommend a sake," he said.
A report on the U.S. market issued in 2009 by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) gave a harsh appraisal of sake's status, revealing that "widespread awareness is still lacking."
It pointed out the need for more sake-savvy sommeliers, education of restaurant staff, and new labeling for menus and bottles to increase consumption.
Rick Smith, the operator of a specialist sake store in New York, is concerned about the high prices. His establishment's boutique-like interior is lined with more than 150 brands of specially selected ginjo-shu (made with highly polished rice, sometimes with distilled alcohol added) and junmai-shu. A 720-milliliter bottle for around $30 (2,400 yen) to $50 is its hottest selling item, but the hefty freight costs force him to mark it up by about $10 more than the Japanese price.
"If manufacturers go all out to sell their products in the United States, and if a price war like the one that exists for wine breaks out, it should become possible to lower prices a little," Smith said.
Smith, who was previously an advertising representative for a wine magazine, originally had a less than charitable view of sake.
He described his experience of drinking “kanzake” (heated sake) at a Japanese restaurant around 30 years ago: "It was a nightmare, with a smell just like jet fuel or some kind of chemical."
However, about 10 years ago, he discovered ginjo-shu at a New York sushi restaurant and "it opened my eyes."
Nowadays, he holds sake-tasting events several times a year where brewery owners brought in from Japan explain the characteristics of the elixir, such as how its taste changes depending on how the rice is polished.
The sake promoters in the United States hope more drinkers become like Gomez at the Tocqueville restaurant.
After sipping the Kimoto sake, he said, "This has a flavor comparable to that of a full-bodied, top line red wine."
- « Prev
- Next »