Last May at a Wine & Spirits magazine “Top of the List” event in NYC, attendees swirled Bordeaux and munched on concept-forward small bites, much as they do at similar events around the country. The difference here was that for the first time in the event’s history, it allowed food to be paired with sake instead of wine.
Sake, which is now included on the Court of Master Sommeliers exam, is a certifiable part of food and wine culture. And the ones to conduct the sake initiation at the Wine & Spirits event were Natalie Graham and Tanner Fahl, whose Lower East Side restaurant and sake lounge, SakaMai, has quickly emerged as a frontrunner in a sake renaissance being curated here in New York City.
Fahl, who identified as a “wine guy” until an enlightening experience with a bottle of Nanbu Bijin daiginjo, says it’s time New Yorkers started respecting and enjoying sake like they do wine. “Our big goal is to get people to start buying sake to take home to drink with their meal,” like they would a bottle of wine, he says. “If we can get people to that point, that’s how we know we’ve succeeded.”
Sake novelties, such as Tamanohikari, which pours as a liquid and freezes into a slushy junmai ginjo upon contact with the glass, or the extravagant Born: Dreams Come True, an aged sake that’s meant to be enjoyed after reaching an important milestone, have a place. (When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the prime minister of Japan gave him one as a gift. The sake routinely registers as one of the most expensive sold and is “kind of a steal” at $400, Fahl says of the price at SakaMai.)
But it is more likely the SakaMai team will achieve their goal by expanding the sake-drinking experience. In Japan, sake is still sort of an old man’s drink, taking a back seat to shochu and beer. But Graham and Fahl’s vision includes introducing sake to the younger generations with a hope of effecting some reverse acculturation.
SakaMai’s newly redesigned sake menu features full-color images of the bottles, and sharp blurbs give a quick synopsis of what’s inside. Descriptions such as “so fresh, so clean,” “vibrant,” and “down to earth” are used to organize the sake list by flavor profile rather than the region or style of the brew. The selection runs deep enough to include cask-strength sakes, and draft “kizake” as well. A well-executed food menu and an erudite selection of premium Japanese spirits and craft beers round out the menu.
Though connoisseurs may blanch, sake even finds its way into some of head mixologist Shingo Gokan’s esoteric signature cocktails. SakaMai poached Gokan from Angel’s Share (where he arguably started NYC’s craft cocktail movement) by promising to let him do occasional “cocktail omakase” nights at the bar. (Grab a seat on September 24 or 25.) Meanwhile, Gokan originals like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a strong bourbon and aged sake drink that’s served tableside in a snifter still smoking from the embers of cloves and cinnamon, and Haizakura, with its junmai sake, plum wine, peach cordial, and ume vinegar, are diabolically potent.
Sake and Japanese food are not a sacrosanct combination, as executive chef Takanori Akiyama suggests with a menu that is definitely Japan-inspired but essentially removed from standard izakaya fare. Not-so-subtle hints of Italy come via the Parmesan-covered uni crostini ($8), while Akiyama’s take on tsukune ($8) involves foie gras and crushed poached eggs incorporated into oversized chicken meatballs.
The inaccurate but playfully named Egg on Egg on Egg ($18) is a layering of scrambled eggs, sturgeon caviar, and uni (the inaccuracy lies in the edible part of uni actually being the gonads, rather than the eggs), while a simple octopus sashimi ($12) topped with umami-rich shio kombu is nothing short of exquisite.
Graham and Fahl, who are both part Japanese, have a deep appreciation for sake and the culture that built it. Through SakaMai they hope to cultivate new sake drinkers in New York while breaking down the traditional mindset of how sake is perceived and how it can be enjoyed.
Or, as Graham puts it: “We recognize where sake is, where it was, and where it’s going to go.”