November 23, 2014

Florida Life

Savoring Sake

Gone are the days when Florida's sake lovers had to search far and wide for a quality offering.

Chris Sherman | 3/1/2011
Zuma
Zuma, which opened last year in Miami's Epic Hotel, offers 40 sakes.

Cucumber Sake-tini
Echo offers a "Cucumber Sake-tini" for $14.
High-quality sake is the hottest beverage in restaurants — brewed in 10,000 versions by revered brew masters and large industrial brands and, of course, served cold.

While made of rice, sake can have all the variable pleasures of fine wine. The texture can be crisp and sparkling or cloudy and silky. The aromas range from flowers to melons. The flavors, from pears to pepper. And yes, the rice, from slightly sweet to as bone dry as sauvignon blanc.

While Japan has brewed and savored sakes for 2,000 years, the wide spectrum of sakes has only been sampled in Florida in the past 10 years, decades after we succumbed to the appeal of the sushi bar.

But as the sushi bar has morphed into ever more innovative forms like the traditional izakaya and robata grills of roasted meat and fish and fusions with other modern cuisines, sake has expanded, too.

Once there were only a few choices of straight sake. Now every smart Japanese and sushi restaurant around Florida has a substantial sake list, and many brag on it in their name.

Miami's Doraku
Miami's Doraku has dozens of sakes.

Talking Sake

Sakes differ by region, process, brand, ingredients and flavors.

Nigori — Sakes that are unfiltered and cloudy yet silky and smooth

Jizake — Sakes from very small
artisanal brewers

Honjozo — Sake to which a small amount of distilled alcohol is added, often lighter

Junmai — Made from pure rice with no extra alcohol. Rich and full bodied

Ginjo — Made from highly polished rice and can be quite delicate

Daiginjo — The finest of sakes made from rice kernels milled down to half their original size. Smooth and very aromatic

Dragonfly Sushi & Sake Co. in Gainesville and Orlando aims to be a Japanese pub with small dishes from sushi to short ribs to lettuce wraps. It musters up dozens of sakes to accompany them. For beginners, there is a four-glass sampler ($18) of cloudy unfiltered nigori to crisper ginjo sakes. The list tops out with a $75 bottle of silky Wakatake "Demon Slayer.'' At Echo, the sleek Asian restaurant of the Breakers in Palm Beach, there are a dozen sakes ranging from a $33 junmai to a $130 daiginjo, the Dewazakura "Mountain Cherry.''

The classiest new Japanese restaurant and sake bar may be the Miami branch of stunning Zuma (London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai), which opened last year in the Epic Hotel downtown. It has 40 sakes, including a custom brewed house brand and a sake sommelier to guide diners in pairings from starters and sushi to dessert.

When Kevin Aoki opened his modern Japanese restaurant Doraku in Miami 10 years ago, it was unlike Benihana, the chain his father, Rocky, started a generation before. Doraku has more sushi than steak and dozens of sakes. Both son and father love sake (Rocky wrote the book on it). "No meal would be complete without it,'' says Kevin, and he goes to Japan every year to seek out the sakes he wants.

The best sake depends on fine rice, carefully milled down to its starchy core, pure water, the koji mold that turns starch to sugar and yeasts that turn sugar to alcohol. However, the fermentation process is longer and more complicated than with grape wines, and the skill of the brew master is often more important than the ingredients. Many sake houses have brewed sake for hundreds of years, and their brew masters are revered.

The variations are endless, dry to rich, aged and unfiltered. Many carry fanciful English names such as "Princess of Love" or "Moon after the Rain," but the novice is best advised to ask the waiter or chef and slowly work through the Japanese language for grades and pairings. You'll be amazed how many flavors you will find come from simple grains of rice.

It's a remarkable palate-opening experience that any fan of Asian cuisine will return to again and again.

Tags: Dining & Travel

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