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Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About Sake

Heaps of new openings this month (Lure Fishbar, Pink Elephant, Mercadito) so page down for new spots...and next time, our runway report from Fashion Week and Spring trends...meanwhile, currently en vogue...

Last year at a dinner party, I served every kind of sake available at Astor Wines in an effort to learn which ones we liked. Sadly, after falling into too many bottles of the pre-martini, James Bond obsession drink, all those labels became one big blur. So we cornered Rocky Aoki, founder of Haru and Benihana, father to model Devon and chief sake guy of his to-your-door sake club for our Pocket HipGuide to Sake below.......

(S) What is this sake "water from heaven" bit?
RA: My father used to drink a lot - he would always say that sake is water from Heaven. I also like to call sake water from heaven because during my record-breaking balloon trip across the Pacific Ocean we were caught in a heavy storm that caused the balloon to descend; although my crewmembers were throwing out everything they could get their hands on, I held onto my sake cask, and by keeping this good luck sake I believe it helped us all land safely.

(S) Mr. Aoki, what is the correct temperature for warm sake and do you agree with James Bond (on the correct temperature for sake)?
I believe most high quality sake should be consumed chilled. However, the new trend from Japan is to drink it at room temperature or above. In the end, I would say to Mr. Bond that people should drink sake the way they like it.

(S) All those sake labels in Japanese leave me terribly confused; in wine for example, there are key terms like "oak" and "dry", what are the key words in sake and what do they mean?
I find sake labels to be beautiful and I wouldn't want you to be confused.

The main types of sake are Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo and Daiginjo, which are explained in further detail in my book Sake, Water from Heaven. To make sake easier to understand, I usually categorize it into four types: Fragrant, Rich, Light & Smooth, and Aged.

Fragrant sake goes well with shrimp cocktail, Italian antipasto, seafood salad with asparagus, grilled lobster with herbs, and sautéed broccoli and scallops.

Rich sake works best with oyster dishes, caviar, roast beef, roast pork, fried dumplings, shrimp with chili sauce, steaks, fried chicken, and sukiyaki.

Light & Smooth can be paired with sushi, clam chowder, sautéed chicken with tomato sauce, basil pasta, crab shumai and soba noodles (most restaurants serve Junmai, a Light & Smooth type, which matches well with a wide variety of foods).

Finally, aged sakes go with foie gras, blue cheese with honey, roast duck, lamb, steak, beef stew, truffle flavored dishes, oxtail soup and Peking duck.

(S) What are five things every person should know about sake?
(1) Beginners should start with Junmai sake before trying any others.

(2) Try to consume sake without putting anything into it. For example, some people eat salt after drinking sake because they think it's cool, but in fact this was originally done to kill the aftertaste of bad sake.

(3) Same goes for cucumber. Just say no.

(4) Put sake in your bathwater if you are sick. It will increase your body temperature and make you feel better.

(5) Ancient Japanese couples would drink sake all night, and you can guess the rest....

(S) Even though you don't run it anymore, you founded Benihana. I'm obsessed with Benihana. My staff always changes my reservations to places like Megu and Jewel Bako behind my back. How would you convince them that Benihana is hip?
There is something about Benihana everyone loves. Every time you go to Benihana, you feel good coming out of it. To be honest, you can't compare Megu and Jewel Bako to Benihana, because they are completely different types of restaurants.

(S) Ok, I want to look smart when I eat at Megu. What are the top 3 sakes I should ask for?
Try anything on the menu that is Junmai type sake, since it goes well with many different kinds of food, and it is very easy and smooth to drink. Fragrant types of sake don’t work with many dishes, but they do pair well with some light appetizers. Rich types of sake are best for meat entrees.

(S) I hear you came to this country on the Olympic wrestling team. Have your wrestling skills come in handy in launching your restaurants and sake club?
In the beginning of my career at Benihana, there were some solicitors who wanted to harass me if I didn’t listen to them. I've always had confidence in myself, so I wasn’t afraid to fight them off. For the RKA Sake Club, all my members are pleasant people who enjoy drinking sake, so I have no need to use my wrestling skills on them!

(S) We hear that Japanese women apply sake to their face. This is kind of like washing my hair with beer, right?
Did you ever notice that a sumo wrestler's skin is really nice? That is because they drink sake and also slap it on their body. Many Japanese women including my wife use sake lotion, which is a mixture of sake and water to apply to your face for a nice glow and firm skin.

(S) What's this about those drinking sake never getting colds? Think the AMA (American Medical Association) will go for that?
One of the natural remedies to cure a cold is to take a hot sake bath. This will raise your body temperature and make you sweat. But since this is a homeopathic remedy, it may not be something to approach the AMA with.

(S) So for $299 a year, I get mailed all kinds of sake from you?
The annual membership for my RKA Sake Club includes rare sake from Japanese microbreweries that I have personally selected, sake-related goods such as beautiful sake serving sets to complement your sake experience, recipes for sake cocktails, sake sommelier tips, and exclusive invitations to seminars and tasting parties at trendy restaurants.

After my little chat with Rocky, I became obsessed - turns out everyone had a place for me to check out....Down on Clinton Street, Chibitini's second location is Gallo's Jay Mack's fave and pals of Ami Pomeranc (Jason's son) directed me to Aki at West 4th and Barrow where they say the chef used to work for the Prime Minister of Japan...

above Our, um, test subjects for this piece.

On September 30th, if you happen to be in New York, check out the JOY OF SAKE event - restaurants such as Bao 111 and Geisha are participating.....

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