Sake, in English, refers to the alcoholic fermented rice beverage from Japan.
Like wine, sake is a varied category; cheap Futsushu to rich Junmai Daiginjo styles, with different rice variants and water quality. Sake’s method of production aligns closely with beer, though – despite being known as “rice wine.”
Sure, most sake is best sipped chilled; others warm or hot. Every sake is different – it just takes a little experimenting to do depending on its complex flavoring and food pairing. This winter, cozy up at these six sake-centric hotspots for a cup (or carafe) of hot sake and a pairing plate, suggested by top “sake samurais” in New York City.
Mokyo, meaning a playful way of saying “Thursday” in Korean, is the sister restaurant to nearby Thursday Kitchen from Chef Kyungmin Kay Hyun. The somewhat-new nook with a stretched outdoor area on Saint Marks Place in the East Village offers an array of Asian-inspired tapas that perfectly blends Chef Kay’s Korean bequest and ongoing romance with Spanish flavors. Same holds true to the diverse drink list presenting juicy red wines from Chile and Spain, plus hot sake and soju from East Asia.
Within that matrix menu, the sake section is subdivided four ways: Aromatic, Refreshing, Rich, and Unique, with all offerings available by glass, carafe, and bottle – also, served chilled or not. Under “Unique,” Hakutsuru Organic stands dry and crisp with hints of citrus and clay, and is preferred slightly warm. At Mokyo, this USDA-certified, organic junmai sake must be matched with Chef Kay’s flat noodles weaved in Sichuan mala oil with Brazilian nuts and fresh basil atop.
Brooklyn Kura brews and sells Japanese-style sake made from four deceptively simple ingredients: American-grown rice, filtered Brooklyn tap water (actually akin to Japan’s prime water system), native yeast, and koji, or rice malt.
Headquartered in a 2,500-square-foot space in the center of Industry City in Sunset Park, the first-ever sake brewery and taproom (to hit New York City) was established in March 2018 by Brian Polen and Brandon Doughan. Together, they are dedicated to utilizing time-honored techniques to craft subtle yet complex sake, generally served chilled or at room temperature.
This cold weather season, Brooklyn Kura offers a Sake Hot Toddy carafe, built with amber sake (a unique type brewed using roasted rice), house-made apple cider infused with cinnamon, apple-scented black tea, and fresh makrut lime leaves, and a splash of lemon juice; topped with cinnamon sticks and makrut lime leaves for garnish. The toddy is heated by resistant resident sake sommelier Paulie Nattathan and enjoyed best beside a hearty charcuterie plate in the lush courtyard.
Barely a year ago did Laut Singapura receive a liquor license. Now, the renowned restaurant is serving Singaporean street food next to wide-ranging rice and plum wines in a polished in- and outdoor setting with splashes of color.
The requested Ryusei Junmai Daiginjo sake supplements the dim sum combo with its delicate flavors. Junmai daiginjo is the highest grade of sake – the finest single malt whisky in Scotland (but in Japan).
Even the house hot sake, Sho Chiku Bai with set junmai character (soft, sweet notes of banana and melon) pairs nicely with mildly-seasoned noodles like the Indonesian-style, mee hoon goreng sautéed with sambal, scallion, and more.
15EAST @ Tocqueville
Because of Covid-19, we have a merge of two iconic restaurants in Union Square. 15EAST (now) @ Tocqueville displays Japanese omakase and a French-American sensibility, simultaneously. Sashimi introduces Sauternes and foie gras. Magret duck followed by hand-cut soba. Finally, a baked Fuji apple à la mode to end an exhilarating tri-cultural tasting. To accompany? A 23-page-long beverage menu debuting elegant wine offerings of all glass sizes and temperatures checks, such as sake.
“These pages portray the diversity of exotic grape varieties, the gift of nature and the artistry of winemakers [and brewers],” shares Master Sommelier, Roger Dagorn.
On one end, there is Manzairaku Honjozo priced at $36 per carafe, and Ohmine Jun Daiginjo opposite, at $365. Both take well to warming, Manzairaku is a lightly grainy (with little umami) honjozo – that’s sake with a small amount of brewer’s alcohol added to the fermenting sake mash. And, Ohmine is what a “white peach characterizes” as a delightful junmai daiginjo.
Recognized as one of the World’s Top 50 Best Bars (again) this year, Katana Kitten lashes out fizzy highballs, souped-up boilermakers, and hot sake specials across two-levels and one outdoor drinking section on West Village’s Hudson Street. All sake is available in 2-ounce or 4-ounce cups, and by bottle.
As for fare, the slim menu marries izakaya and American bar food; for example, a Japanese twist on the greasy grilled cheese with layers of muenster, parmesan dust, nori, sesame, and yuzu kosho. But who said drinking warm sake with slippery ingredients like cheese was wrong? It’s really the best way to enjoy it.
Food (and drink) for thought: You can get your Katana Kitten favorites delivered right to your door, including spirited cocktails and cups of sake.
Lower East Side
Sakamai, 酒米 is the rice material that is used for sake-brewing, or “brewer’s rice.” SakaMai has been a deep-seated sake bar and restaurant on the Lower East Side since 2013, featuring fine rice wines and well-dressed Japanese plates.
Couple the warm Tengumai “Dancing Goblins” sake and hanger steak with fingerling potatoes. The equal-balanced acidity and umami in the junmai sake maximizes the juiciness of the tasty steak. The sake flavor changes when heated, becoming more rich and robust.
“Generally speaking, sake with more umami and texture can have enhanced flavors when warmed,” Karen Lin, beverage director and general manager of SakaMai, told Liquor.com last month. When dining in- or outdoors, ask the on-site sake specialist for perfect pairing suggestions.