When it comes to sake, I’m sort of an idiot. I can navigate a whiskey cabinet, beer cooler or wine cellar, but I approach sake with all the fumbling indecision of a middle-school makeout session.
To eliminate confusion, I’ve come to Bao Noodles (391 2nd Ave. betw. E. 22nd & E. 23rd Sts., 212-725-7770) on a chilly weeknight. Bao co-owner Chris Johnson has offered to tutor me on this fermented beverage, which is created by mixing cooked rice with yeast, water and koji (rice inoculated with a special mold). And by “tutor,” I mean “drink me under the table.”
“We’re going on a sake crawl,” explains Johnson, 41, clad in blue jeans and a newsboy cap. I’m a lucky duck. In New York City, there’s no better sake sensei than Johnson, who has built sake programs at Megu and BondSt and judged international competitions.
He was first introduced to sake in the early 1990s while teaching English in Japan. He became enamored of the beverage and, upon returning to the States, began a fervent sake self-education. “I didn’t have a high-end sake till I left Japan,” he explains. “I learned more about sake here than in Japan.”
Perhaps there’s hope for me, I think, as my lesson starts with a chilly bolt of Koshiki Junzukuri. It’s designated as a junmai—unadulterated sake, also encompassing junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo. (Each refers to a different grade of polished rice. If alcohol is added, then sake is dubbed daiginjo, ginjo or honjozo.) “This is a sake that’ll carry me through a night of drinking,” Johnson says, toasting me with the earthy, cocoa-accented elixir. It drinks crisp and clean. It’s a fine way to say sayonara to sobriety.
We follow that with a glass of chilled Yoshinogawa Echigo, another junmai. I discern clean, subtle flavors of citrus. Johnson declares mascarpone. “It gets your palate thinking sake,” he says. “Now we’re in a sake mode.” He rubs his hands together. It’s on.
After leaving Bao, we cab it to the East Village, where Johnson resides. We arrive at Kasadela (647 E. 11th St. betw. Aves. B & C, 212-777-1582), a modest, brick-walled sake emporium. Johnson orders Kozaemon, a junmai with a dry nuttiness, and chicken wings. They arrive in a majestic sticky pile, shellacked with garlic, ginger and soy sauce. To pair, Johnson selects the Suijin junmai. It packs a peppery essence, a complement to spicy fowl. Given the chance, I’d sip this sake while chomping buffalo-style wings. “Sake is a beverage that transcends Asian cuisine,” explains Johnson. “In reality, sushi and sake don’t pair all that well. Sushi gets beaten up by sake.”
But sake, Johnson says, won’t bludgeon your brain. “You could wake up the next morning after having one glass of wine and have a headache,” says Johnson, who adds that sake can last up to 10 days refrigerated once opened. “That’s because of the sulfites. There are no sulfites in sakes.” Sweet, sweet booze with hardly any hangover? Sold. We disappear the potion and shuffle to Sake Bar Satsko (212 E. 7th St. betw. Aves. A & B, 212-614-0933).
The room is small and cozy, decorated with Polaroids of smiling, soused customers. “It’s all locals, people who love sake,” Johnson says. We toss our coats at a table. It’s a step up from the floor. I stumble down that step en route to the bathroom. I swear I’m not drunk. Much. “It’s OK, I’ve fallen down before,” Johnson says, trying to lessen my red-faced shame.
I order sweet and fruity Nanbu Bijin, while Johnson nabs the floral, cherry-accented Dewazakura Oka. Beside us, a couple orders a sake bomb—a half-filled beer mug with chopsticks perched on top, cradling a sake shot. “Sake, sake, bomb!” they chant, pounding the table on “bomb” and dropping sake into the fizzy beer. “Chug, chug, chug!” Johnson chants. The couple obliges. “I often berate sake bombs, but it’s just people having fun,” Johnson says. “I don’t care as long as they’re not using good sake.”
Enough sake. Johnson wants me to try Japan’s other famous inebriant. We head to the nearby Uminoie (86 E. 3rd St. betw. 1st & 2nd Aves., 646-654-1122), which specializes in shochu, a distilled beverage often concocted from sweet potatoes, barley or rice. I order a Kappa no Sasoi- Mizu—made with two varieties of sweet potatoes—served on the rocks. The shochu has a grassy scent and flavor that flits from nuts to orange peel. It’s perfectly delightful. “Now try it with hot water,” Johnson insists. “The aroma stays the same, but you don’t notice that it’s weaker.” Though the shochu is diluted, it still packs an aromatic wallop. The warming water approximates a boozy stomach burn.
“Want to hit another sake bar?” Johnson asks. More stellar spots beckon. In Midtown there’s standout Sakagura (211 E. 43rd St. betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves., 212- 953-7253), nestled in an office building’s basement. In the East Village there’s underground Decibel (240 E. 9th St. betw 2nd & 3rd Aves., 212-979-2733), which transports patrons to Tokyo. I beg off. Though I haven’t done a sake bomb, I’m officially bombed on sake.
What’s your favorite sake spot? Tell me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter @JoshMBernstein.