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A toast to sake and natural wines
A couple of weeks ago at a private dinner held at the restaurant Nouri, guests were fighting to take a selfie with the man of the evening Naoto Mizuno - the eighth-generation owner of cult sake brewery Kokuryu and generally acknowledged as sake royalty, thanks to Japanese crown prince Naruhito who publicly declared how much he liked it more than 20 years ago.
That and the fact that Mizuno san's much sought-after Ishidaya and Nizaemon aged sake can be incredibly expensive to buy, assuming you can find them.
Once the purview of high-end Japanese restaurants - namely Waku Ghin which had exclusive dibs until now - the presence of Kokuryo and Mizuno san in the decidedly non-Japanese Nouri was significant for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it breaks the convention that Kokuryu's sake is only reserved for high-end Japanese restaurants. Secondly, it highlights its eagerness to explore how sake can actually be a perfect match for non-Japanese cuisine.
This cross-cultural liaison was made possible by Andre Chalson, managing director of the recently-founded F&B distributor Mead - named for the favoured tipple of ancient Greeks.
Together with his Tokyo-based partner Yasuhiro Mie, the duo have scored a coup by becoming the Singapore agent for a collective of some of the most critically acclaimed sake brands in addition to Kokuryu.
The brands comprise Hakugakusen, Jozan, Sari, Kid, Fukuda, Banshu Ikkon, Yokoyama Goju and Nakamura Sochu. They are also in talks to bring in other top brands such as Isojiman, Tengumai and Juyondai.
"The brands are selected by Hironori Hayashi, a fourth-generation sake mekiki (sake selector) from Sakenomise Hayashi in Fukui prefecture," says Mr Chalson, who also has an events company in Singapore and an alcohol distribution company in Cambodia. "Hiro san is one of only 3,000 official sake diploma holders in Japan."
Mr Chalson feels that sake is under-represented in non-Japanese restaurants and is on a mission to change that. "Drink trends are, to a large extent, cyclical, but sake has never really experienced a top of mind status as, say, wine has, outside of Japan. I want people to experience this amazingly complex drink and attune their palates to the nuances before sake becomes mainstream."
Besides Nouri, Mr Chalson also supplies sake to progressive restaurants such as Tippling Club, Odette, Blackwattle, Burnt Ends and Monti. But he is also working with Japanese eateries Jinjo and Hashida as well.
Sake is only half the story as Mead also sources ingredients such as wild seafood from Japan, wagyu from Kagoshima as well as fresh vegetables and fruit. Everything is seasonal and flown in twice a week and "we work with a fish mekiki the same way we work with Hiro-san".
He adds, "It's about pairing sake with the same level of excellence in food. For example, different prefectures in Japan are renowned for different products. Nagasaki is famous for its seafood, so its breweries - such as Fukuda and Yokoyama Goju - tend to make sakes that pair well with seafood."
Says Nouri's chef-owner Ivan Brehm, one of Mead's early supporters besides Tippling Club: "Sake is incredibly food-friendly. Its low acidity, fuller body and frequent umami presence are characteristics that push food appreciation without harsh contrasts. While great wine pairings are memorable, even at its worst, a sake pairing won't kill a dish. The higher alcohol content also means sake helps to carry the flavours of a dish faster and with more intensity than wine."
Among the dishes he paired with the sake were Carabinero shrimp and Sakura ebi in a saffron tomato broth; and Mushrooms and Forest herbs with Basil and Almond Paste.
What impressed Mr Chalson too was how chef Brehm served a particular Junmai Ginjo cold with one dish, but warmed it up for a dish of A5 Kagoshima wagyu. "It completely changed the character of the sake but is also a true sign of quality that it can be served both ways." And, he adds, "Sake is so versatile it can even go with cheese - trust me!" Of course, given how limited some sake houses' production is, will there be enough for the Singapore market?
Speaking through Mr Chalson's partner Mie san, Kokuryu's Mizuno san says that he is trying to increase production for Asia, which has become an important market for them, more than the US which it used to focus on. "We had been looking for a distributor for Singapore but we did not find one till now. I have known Mie san for years but I was not ready to export overseas then." For now, Kokuryu's regular sake will be brought to Singapore, but as for the coveted Nizaemon and Ishidaya, "I am trying to increase production. Little by little," he says.
As chef Brehm says, "The benchmark should always be the quality of the experience. Pegging an ingredient to a food or tradition limits its development and evolution."
Little by little, sake brewers are realising this too. While they're at it, how about some Comte and a glass of Junmai Daiginjo?
For more information, contact Mead at 9006-1944 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Le Bon Funk
FOR a wine bar specialising in natural wines, a name like Le Bon Funk seems just about right. After all, natural wines have a reputation for tasting "funky", but as head sommelier Josée Yeomans puts it, there's good funk and bad funk.
"Some natural wines are funky for the wrong reasons," says the Ontario-born Ms Yeomans who honed her craft in France. "These wines oxidise quickly, which can give a funky note. I don't serve those."
The good funk is what the French refer to as amer, or "bitter", which sounds negative but "it's just a taste quality," she explains. "When I ask a table how funky they want to go, it could just be a skin contact wine, a purposely-oxidised wine, or a wine that's just unfiltered and cloudy."
Ms Yeomans runs the front-of-house at Le Bon Funk by The Lo & Behold Group, alongside Canadian-born, Japanese-European chef-owner Keirin Buck who used to work at Burnt Ends. Together the two set out to prove that there's more to food and wine pairing than just Old World or New World wines.
Says Chef Buck: "(Natural wines use) a lot of natural practices, permaculture, biodynamic farming and things like that. I like that style because my parents had an organic farm back in Canada, so I like keeping things pure and true to the nature of what they are.
"I was never overly-sold on old styles of wine. I didn't find them interesting. I got into natural ones because there are so many different types of grapes, so many different styles. Some have more effervescence, some are refreshing, but some are heavy. I realised there's more to them than the basic red and white."
That's why he doesn't limit himself to one particular cuisine and changes his menu almost daily according to what's in season. Some highlight dishes include a Whole Heritage Chicken, Escorola and Fennel Pollen (S$68), Rabbit Boudin Blanc and Carrot (S$19), and a Cedar Jelly and Foie Gras Toast (S$16) that was inspired by local kaya toast.
The natural wines they carry are actually great for food pairings, adds Ms Yeomans. "Things like orange wines, the skin contact wines I have, they have the freshness of a white wine, but the tannin and weight of a red. They're versatile. That's what I love about them."
At Le Bon Funk, the wines are all natural but not necessarily 100 per cent organic. Each winemaker is artisanal, and hand-picked by Ms Yeomans based on their different farming practices - all low-intervention, which means as few chemicals and additives as possible.
"I look for winemakers that have been making natural wines for a while now not because it's a trend but because of their principles. They do it for the right reasons, and won't just put anything in a bottle." One example is a winemaker who used to work in vineyards full of pesticides, until one day when he was out in the fields when the pesticides were being sprayed. After falling very ill, he decided he would not continue making wine that would be harmful to people in the long-run.
One of Ms Yeomans' favourites is the Xi-Ro, by a winemaker named Jason Ligas from Macedonia, Greece. It is made with a blend of Xinomavro (a red grape) and Roditis (a white grape), and she finds it interesting because of how different it tastes and looks every year.
Another winemaker, Jean Christophe Comor, makes the Analepse which is a Carignan Blanc three-week maceration skin contact wine that's bold and fresh but still has the tannins to hold up to any dish, and also makes the Au Hazard et Sauvent with Old Vine Carignan grape, which has both depth and weight while still remaining bright on the palate.
Says Ms Yeomans: "Food is important, but Singapore's weather and temperature are also a big consideration for me. So I look for a lot of freshness that allows you to eat and drink without that uncomfortable weight you can get from a high-alcohol, heavy wine."
29 Club Street. Tel: 6224-1490