Since I started dabbling with the sake department this past Fall, there hasn't been much time to dedicate towards the expansion and understanding of our selection; just enough to cover the basics. I did a blitzkrieg study session before the holiday shopping season put the kibosh on any ulterior motives I might have had. From November to December I was locked down with booze orders, but now that January has come there should be a bit more time to expound on Japan's national beverage and beloved brew. My colleague Jeff Garneau and I were hoping to not only to taste some new sakes, but also imbibe them with food in a more traditional setting. How should we be enjoying these? What should we be pairing them with? What would an epic food and sake session even look like and how much could we drink all in one sitting? That's why we scheduled a dinner appointment with sake expert Tamiko Ishidate to do some boozing at my local izakaya spot in San Mateo: Ginji.
Izakaya basically means a restaurant that facilitates drinking and happens to serve some food to go along with it. Rather than order an entree and decide what you're going to sip along side it, you do the exact opposite. You order a freezing cold mug of Kirin, a bottle of sake—like the Fukucho Junmai Ginjo "Moon on the Water"—and you get your drink on. Fukucho brewery is owned and operated by Miho Imada, one of the passionate and pioneering female brewers in Japan who remains single and describes herself as "married to sake." Tamiko told us the specs as we held our glasses out for a pour.
Little glasses of sake go down very quickly; just like the little nibbles of fried this and grilled that being delivered every few minutes to the table. Izakaya establishments are dangerous places for guys like me. I can eat and drink at a pace most mortals cannot keep up with.
There are no sushi options or steaming bowls of ramen at Ginji because, again, you're not there to have a meal. You're there to drink, so most of the fare is simple, savory, and grilled. Chicken thighs, chicken breasts, chicken tendons, chicken livers—all covered in various sauces and spices. We had pork cheeks, beef cubes, smoked fish, and a number of other quick bites that paired beautifully with the sake selections.
We popped about five different bottles over the course of the evening, between frosty glasses of Japanese beer. Tamiko also brought a remarkably savory bottle of sake from Tensei brewery called "A Thousand Waves", which had gone through malolactic fermentation and created a softer, richer, creamier palate. There is so much variety in sake; flavors that are in between crisp French white wines, savory mezcals, and saline Islay single malts. The best way to experience this incredible diversity is to pull up a chair at your local izakaya spot, order some bottles, and get the show on the road. Bring friends, as well. The more people you have, the more fun it is (and the more bottles of sake you get to try!). If I could master the menu at Ginji I think I'd be there almost every weekend. And that would not be a good thing for my liver.