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Dim the Lights, Chill the Sake

Most Americans, even those who navigate wines, single malts, and specialty martinis with confidence, probably think sake is always served hot and in undersized cups that indicate it should be shot or nursed like a spirit, rather than sipped casually like wine. But according to Angela Hepler, former manager of LA’s Sushi Roku and current co-owner (with Susan Traina and Franco Gianni) of Randolph Street’s Sushi Wabi, sake is wine–just rice wine, not grape wine. Sushi Wabi, along with rising numbers of upscale Japanese restaurants, sake bars, and even the occasional hotel bar, primarily serves sake chilled.

There are eight grades of sake, categorized by brewing method and ingredients. Only futsu-shu–the lowest and most common grade–is best served warm. “Mostly because heat masks an inferior taste,” says Hepler. The taste of inferior sake might be described as overly fermented or yeasty, with a pungent aftertaste that’s increasingly noticeable as it cools. Sushi Wabi does offer one hot sake, by Japan’s most popular sake company, Ozeki. Hepler, though, recommends dressing it up with Chambord, creating a sweet, celebratory drink called “purple haze.”

Only hot sake is served in tiny cups. At Sushi Wabi, chilled varieties are served in wine glasses, and the bottles are kept in a bucket “with ice, exactly like wine,” says Hepler. At Division Street’s Mirai Sushi, cold sake is first decanted, then served in drinking glasses. Both methods emphasize bottle presentation and set to rest the “playing house” image of the hot-sake sets.

Sushi Wabi offers nine chilled sakes and, as at most sake breweries, diners interested in a tasting can also order a sampler. At Mirai, where general manager Julio Burbano spent three months putting together a sake menu that spans five of the eight grades, 12 varieties are available. A highly drinkable sake included on both menus is Genshu Honjyozo: Madoka–called Madoka for short. “Genshu” indicates a grade of sake that is raw and undiluted with water, with an alcohol content of 18 percent. “Madoka” is “equivalent to the name of a vineyard,” says Burbano. It’s a sohshu-grade sake, which Burbano describes as having “a butter finish and a balance between sweetness and bitterness.” Hepler likens it to a chardonnay. It’s palatable, with a smooth, refreshing, and complex taste.

All sakes have some dryness to them, but some are sweeter than others. Among Sushi Wabi’s best-sellers is Karatamba (casually dubbed “Kara” by Hepler), which tastes strikingly like the plum wine so popular at Japanese restaurants. Hepler describes it as light, fruity, and a good starter sake. Though she compares it to a Riesling or pinot grigio, for some an entire bottle might be cloyingly sweet.

Because sake is more akin to white than red wine, it’s ideal with fish, cooked as well as raw. However, since it has a heavier feel than most white wines, it can also accompany meat dishes, even beef. The more expensive sakes can be rich and buttery, “almost like a Scotch,” Hepler explains. One on Sushi Wabi’s menu is Judan–it’s served in a smaller bottle than Karatamba and Madoka, and ideally should be sipped by a group. “Two people wouldn’t drink a whole bottle,” says Hepler, though the taste is deceptively mild compared with spirits.

Like wines, sakes pair well with different courses. The nigori grade best complements dessert, and Sushi Wabi’s brand of this unfiltered milky-colored variety, Nikko, has a tart flavor that Hepler says goes well with green tea or sweet red-bean ice cream. Nigori sakes can add contrast to the final stages of a meal, not unlike the nuances the bitterness of coffee offers–with a kick. Burbano, who dislikes the taste of this “impure” grade, remains skeptical, and didn’t include any on Mirai’s menu.

Sake generally has an alcohol content of 15 percent, but sakes fortified with additional alcohol can be as potent as 20 percent and are distinguished by the prefix “dai” (for example, dai-ginjyo, where ginjyo means “superior” grade). A good bottle can range from $18 to $100–cheaper, obviously, if you purchase your sake for home consumption. If you do buy sake on your own, remember it’s highly sensitive to heat, light, and movement, and should be refrigerated. Unlike wine, sake does not age well. A truly fresh sake shouldn’t be more than several months past its bottling date. Once opened, it’s best consumed within three days. In Japan, gifts of sake are a must on New Year’s Day and at weddings, and sake drinking is attended by much ceremony. The gift is given in person so giver and receiver can drink together as a symbol of friendship, and it’s traditional for companions to pour sake for each other. On this side of the Pacific, it’s not so codified, but Hepler and Burbano say Chicago diners are catching on.

Sushi Wabi is at 842 W. Randolph, 312-563-1224; Mirai Sushi is at 2020 W. Division, 773-862-8500.

–Gina Frangello

The Dish

Elissa Narow, formerly the assistant pastry chef at Trio, has taken over as Blackbird’s head pastry chef.

Ted Cizma’s Alchemy Food and Drink will open this spring at 617 W. Randolph, two doors east of sister restaurant Grace.

Thyme’s John Bubala plans to move into Wicker Park with the Moroccan–a casual French-Moroccan bistro–in June.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.