Momokawa Saké, premium Junmai saké from Saké One is not your grandpa’s saké.
Attending a recent wine dinner at Wildwood Restaurant in Portland (one so unlike every other wine dinner), in addition to the amazing meal, I found myself absolutely devouring the subject of saké.
The first dinner in this year's Momokawa Supper Club, a series of dinners at restaurants like Wildwood, Andina (March 19) and Saucebox (April 23), was intended to expose the mysteries of saké and showcase how diverse the beverage can actually be (think beyond sushi). The Momokawa Supper Club challenges local chef geniuses to have fun with the menu and create something non-traditionally Asian.
Served cold and in crystal stemware, as opposed to shot glasses, it was obvious this wine was meant to be sipped and treated like a fine wine, not just quickly tossed back and forgotten as a warm saké of your youth would have been. Wildwood Chef Dustin Clark created a brilliant menu, one with both Northwest and Italian influence that magically made the sakés come alive. Chef Clark says the rice wines are low in acid and are actually very easy to pair with food. According to Dewey Weddington, VP of Marketing for Saké One, “There’s an increasing number of restaurants offering saké that don’t even prepare any Japanese food.” After eating Clark’s menu, I’m convinced of the possibilities.
There’s a wide variety of sakes available allowing chefs and bartenders the experience to explore the different densities, textures and flavor profiles… could be the wet dream of someone with a culinary imagination. The wines are sulfite-free, vegan-friendly and gluten-free, but that doesn’t mean they’re headache-free, as some urban legend might imply. Too much of anything just leads to no good.
Greeted with a glass of Nama Ginju, the bar was set pretty high. A rich, dense, undiluted raw saké, the wine sipped more like a traditional fine white wine than a saké, opening my palate with tropical flavors of honeydew melon and white peaches like a vacation from the dreary Northwest winter. Crisp and clean with bright acidity, the wine was a brilliant introduction to what was to be expected, or rather, unexpected.
The first course was accompanied by a glass of Momakawa Organic Junmai Ginjo. Chef Clark paired this wine with an assortment of fried goodies. As if fried anything wouldn’t be good enough, Chef Clark seemed to be inspired by traditional Tempura, creating a non-traditional dish he called Fritto Misto, which was actually a platter of fried Meyer lemons, fennel and sweet onions. Having never had fried Meyer lemons, I have to say this was sheer brilliance. The oil, salt and thinly sliced lemon tartness seemed to dry this thicker bodied wine out, while bringing out a complementary sweetness that wasn’t present all on it’s own. The sake, which was lovely without food, became so much more complex… floral and yeasty = amazing.
My favorite dish was probably the Pan Seared Scallops with Parsnips, Olives and Grapefruit served alongside the Momokawa Silver, a drier wine with higher alcohol levels and pear and green apple notes. The creamy texture of the food was gorgeous with the wine, yet the citrus focus melded with the food and made it an obvious home run. Though this wine would be fantastic with sushi, it was simply stunning with Chef Dustin Clark’s scallops.
The most brilliant pairing of the night was the Saké-Braised Pork Belly with Gingery Brussel Sprouts, Basil and Carrot Purée. Paired with the Momokawa Diamond, the saké seemed to bring out that elusive third flavor that wouldn’t have existed on its own. In this case the wine and the ginger flavors of the food combined creating white pepper and baking spice flavors that added a dreamy and nearly hypnotic element to the creative dish. Momokawa Silver is known to by a dry wine with a tropical nose and aromas of white flowers and melon, yet paired with this dish, the pepper and clove components truly sang. Standing ovation to the chef.
Not time to stand and clap yet, there was still dessert to be eaten. Fresh Bay Leaf Panna Cotta with Paige Mandarin Curd and Lime Sorbet was paired with Momokawa Pearl sake. Delicious, if not a bit Orange Juliusy. A good pairing for the Nigori wine, which is the sweetest of the sakes. In Japan, woman often drink Nigori preferring its sweeter style and it’s also the number one saké seller in the United States. Nigori means cloudy (no, that's not a glass of milk next to my dessert), which is appropriate considering its appearance… the wine is completely unfiltered and contains rice solids. Dewey recommends serving it very chilled and shaking it real well before serving, not something you would think to do all your own. I was thankful for the expert advice.
Overall, in addition to the spectacular meal, I truly found myself gaining an education in saké. Some of what I learned: These wines are meant to be enjoyed and not cellared, in fact the recommended drinking time is 12-18 months from the date of bottling. The Murai family, the partner company who owns Momokawa is merely 200+ years old, a baby in the lifespan of saké producers. The leftover rice flower goes into cattle feed for Tillamook cows and ultimately becomes Tillamook cheddar cheese. Koji is the mold put on steamed rice that converts the rice to sugar and imparts a great deal of the wine’s flavor. Sakés don’t oxidize the way wines from grape juice do and should be stored in the fridge.
Though I’ve seen a number of bars serving saké cocktails lately, if you’d like to have your culinary mind completely blown away, I highly recommend attending one of the other dinners in the series, at Andina or Saucebox. And if you want to experience saké beyond Oregon saké, paired with more traditional Asian cuisine, be sure to attend the Saké Festival in Portland on April 12th. Raise your glass and say “Kan Pai!”