In anticipation of the new San Francisco store and its soon-to-be-amazing sake selection, I've been doing a lot of sake tasting this week. I'm continually amazed and astounded by how much sake is out there, how different each selection is from the next, how wonderfully it pairs with food, and how fast I'm able to drink it. I drank A LOT of sake last night (and most of it went down before I knew what happened). I still remember walking through Tokyo one morning and seeing that Japanese businessman in a full suit outside a sake bar, sleeping on the sidewalk with his briefcase for a pillow. It can happen that easily! You just need to lie down, wherever you are. I whipped up some ramen last night and got down with some interesting bottles. Here are a few new selections that are now available in the store:
I just like looking at the label for this one:
Taiheikai Tokubetsu Junmai Sake $27.99- I really enjoyed this one, mainly because it has so much going on in right off the bat. There's a crisp, yet round fruitiness right on the first sip, but then it moves into a nutty richness with an earthy note on the finish that you usually associated with fermented products. Whereas some sakes are light and fresh, others are heavy and earthy, this junmai has a little bit of everything. It's brewed by the Huchu Homare brewery in Ishioka, about an hour from Tokyo by train. The region is renowned for its soft, iron-free water.
Shichi Hon Yari Junmai Nama $27.99- The Shichi Hon Yari label celebrates the seven spearsmen who became legends at the battle of Shizugatake fought just outside the town of Kinomoto in 1583, where the Tomita brewery is located. What's cool about the Tomita brewery is that they use mineral water that runs from the nearby Ibuki mountains down to their village, and the water is so clean and pure that they don't have to filter it (I have actually drunk river water straight out of a mountain stream in Japan and can vouch for this incredibly purity). The junmai nama is quite earthy and robust on the palate with mushroom flavors and a tanginess from the yeast on the finish. I really, really enjoyed this.
Shichi Hon Yari Hiyaoroshi (Fall 2015 release) $32.99 - I only got a few bottles of this and most of it went home with the staff. It's a special seasonal release from Tomita made from Yamada Nishiki rice and bottled without filtration. It's quite robust, but with a creamier, rounder fruit-focused palate with stands in stark contrast to the earthiness of the standard junmai nama. YUM.
Chikurin "Karoyaka" Junmai Ginjo Sake $36.99- Those looking for an elegant sake, look no further. This is clean and pristine sake of the highest order. The Chikurin is made by Marumoto Brewery, which was founded in 1867 at the base of the Chikurin-ji Mountains, in Okayama-ken, one of Japan’s most prized agricultural regions. The Brewery was originally called Shimizu-ya, literally meaning “spring water store” because it was built in the site of a great water source. Again, you can taste how important the water is here because of how clean the sake is on the palate. Marumoto is also known as the "farmers' brewery" because they actually grow their own rice. Farm to bottle, baby.
Maboroshi Kurobako Junmai Daiginjo Sake $149.99- If you want to big a big-time sake baller, then you can roll out with the Maboroshi Kurobako junmai daiginjo sake with its big fancy box and serious sake flavor. It's made by the Nakao Sake Brewery located in Takehara, a historical city on the coast of the Island Sea in Japan's Hiroshima Prefecture. In the late 1940s, director Nakao Kiyomaro started a serious study of yeast culture to see which strains created the best flavors in sake. The most-celebrated of these was named "apple yeast" because it could be derived from the skin of an apple. After learning how to fully-implement the yeast into his starter mash, Nakao Kiyomaro debuted the Maboroshi Kurobako at the 1948 competition for new sake and took first prize. The sake is still faithfully recreated today and available for a high-price. It's worth it, though. This is utterly divine liquid. Pure, elegant, and clean on the palate, like the finest Champagne, but of course without bubbles and made from rice instead of grapes.
I finished my night with the Maboroshi and woke up in the guest room at around 2 AM, fully-clothed.
You might remember a series of blog posts I wrote this past May while traveling through Oaxaca, part of which focused on the Los Danzantes distillery and its principal distiller Karina Abad Rojas. I don't think I've ever gushed as much about any singular professional in this business as I did while hanging out with Karina. I've never been as impressed with any distiller anywhere as I was during my time with her. She's rather reserved and soft-spoken by nature, yet really she's a stoic and somewhat intimidating figure. I spent three days driving around Oaxaca with her, listening to her talk about the various species of agave—their flavors, their soils, their nuances—while also spending time with her around the distillery. Everyone defers to her. She'll taste quietly in the corner while the men discuss business, but really she's running the show. From just a few conversations with her over a period of a few days, it was clear that Karina knows more about agave botany and appropriate distillation chemistry than just about anyone. What was funny to me, however, was that while all the Mezcalero label releases (the partnership between Danzantes and Craft Spirits in California) have featured the work of numerous male distillers around Oaxaca, they had yet to adorn a bottle with Karina's handywork—even though it's clear to just about everyone (at least the people I spoke with) what a master she is.
It wasn't all that surprising though. The agave spirits world is a very macho place, especially in a genre still dominated by heroic and masculine figures like Don Julio Gonzalez. When I sat with Karina in her office, however, I made it clear what I wanted were we to do something special together. "Quiero algo de ti, algo que has hecho," I told her. While Karina's work is always on display in the Los Danzantes mezcales (known now as Los Nahuales in the states), I wanted to showcase some of her more creative talents—her ability to blend the fierce flavors of wild agave—rather than just the espadin-distilled standards. I knew that Karina loved working with cuishe, the long and narrow wild agave species known for its bright and floral character when distilled. I suggested something fun that showcased her cuishe capabilities.
Five months later, the result of that sitdown meeting is in the bottle and on its way to K&L. A mezcal exclusive consisting of 58.5% sierrudo agave and 41.5% cuishe. The aromas of this blend are simply divine. There's a mild and sweet-fruited character on the nose, lightly-accented with white pepper and jalepeño. The palate is just as gentle with clean lines and a floral flutter, before the sweet and spicy symphony on the finish. Dare I say this mezcal has a feminine touch? Literally?
I had my first Michelin three-star experience this past September when I visited L'Arpege in Paris. I was definitely a bit intimidated by the idea of eating there, and I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of formality. Would I say something stupid? Would I eat with the wrong fork? Would I ask for the wrong wine? As many of you know, my number one goal in writing this blog is to remove much of the pretense from the wine and spirits world, in the hope of making K&L customers more comfortable while shopping with us. I was pleasantly surprised and completely enthralled to find that Alain Passard, the world-famous chef in charge of L'Arpege, has a very similar philosophy regarding his restaurant. His own pleasure seems to derive completely from the pleasure he creates with his guests, and his number one concern as a chef is their comfort. I watched him walk into the restaurant carrying a bag of fresh vegetables, smile and chat with those of us waiting for a table, then head back to the kitchen to get started, bubbling with an energy and positivity that's normally tempered in such prestigious institutions. During the meal he would come out and ask us how we were doing, draping his arm across my shoulder from behind, and treating me as if I were an old friend from college. The entire dining room was instantly smitten.
For you Bay Area locals who may not be familiar with Passard, you only have to travel as far as the heralded Manresa in Los Gatos to feel the impact of his influence. In 2013, Manresa chef David Kinch cited Passard as the chef who had inspired him the most, saying: "He is the only chef I've ever met that I can unequivocally call a true artist." The son of musicians, you only have to look at the vibrant colors and the creative combinations on each of his plates to see Passard's artistic talents on display. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Passard has been able to reinvent himself and continue to grow as a chef. In 2001, fifteen years after opening L'Arpege, he began serving a vegetable-themed menu that would go on to create a new focus in the kitchen. His enthusiasm for these seasonal dishes led to the creation of his own local gardens, which are now featured exclusively in Passard's cuisine. The change had no effect on L'Arpege's reputation, however. It maintained its three-star rating and today is still considered one of the twenty-five best restaurants in the world. For a man who's been cooking professionally since 1971, it's impressive to see that type of transition thirty years into a career. It's definitely a feat only a true artist is capable of doing.
While normally the subject of these interviews revolves around "drinking to drink," in the case of Passard I figured it could be "cooking to cook". His enthusiasm for what he does is absolutely contagious and I can easily say that not only was my meal at L'Arpege the best I've ever had, it was also the most enjoyable and friendly. The staff was amiable and caring, the mood was playful and joyous, and Passard himself was outgoing and accessible. It was almost more about the service than it was the food! I left inspired and enthused, so I knew I needed to sit down for an interview with this guy at some point. Unfortunately my French isn't quite where it needs to be yet, and while Passard speaks English well, he wanted to be completely sure he was using the right vocabulary for an occasion such as this, so we had Charlotte Pruvost from the L'Arpege staff sit in to help us translate.
In this edition of Drinking to Drink we discuss the difficulty of simplicity, remaining customer focused in the face of success, and how eating vegetables out of season can be a real turn off. Previous editions of the D2D series can be found by clicking here, or by visiting the archive in the right hand margin of the blog.
David: Upon arriving at L'Arpege I was taken aback by how unpretentious the vibe felt. I think people expect a three-star Michelin restaurant to be rigid and serious, but your place is the opposite: it's welcoming and relaxed. Was that by design, or is that just a natural extension of your personality?
Alain: I really like the fact our guests feel at home when they come to restaurant Arpège. In Paris, we are one of only three or four chefs to own our restaurant, our guests come to meet the chef like a friend. Haute cuisine can be served in a simple place, without gold leaf on the walls. The client can focus more on the plate! Luxury is more obvious in the palace hotels. I like when the tables are close together, it encourages discussion and creates a nice atmosphere. Clients can share their experience and it becomes a place of encounter.
David: I love that you actually come out and greet each table personally, taking the time to visit with each guest. That was one of the highlights of our meal. Do you do that during every single shift?
Alain: Absolutely! It is a way for me to thank our guests. I like to know who is in the restaurant, where do the guests come from, and if they are satisfied. It is important for me to listen to the needs of my clients so I can correct the situation if something is not to their taste!
David: I think that type of customer-focused hospitality surprises people coming from someone as accomplished as yourself. The fact that, despite your renowned status as a chef, you're there to serve the needs of the guest. It's a lost sense of humility in today's food and wine world, I think. In 1996, you earned three stars for L'Arpege, but in 2001 you introduced a new vegetable-based menu that focused entirely on your own hand-grown produce. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
Alain: As you may know, I love painting and I've been making collages for almost twenty years. The inspiration comes from colors. They've made me a much more creative person!
David: What was the response from your clients and customers when you began making vegetables your focus? Were people surprised?
Alain: Curious people stayed, the others left!
David: It really is that simple, isn't it? I think one of my favorite aspects of our meal was how simply the food was presented and how easy it was to appreciate. I love it when experts in any field can take something that seems high-brow and intimidating, and turn it into something approachable and fun. What are your feelings about the presentation of food and what are your intentions when serving it?
Alain: Easiest things are often the most difficult. This is my philosophy. I like simple things, and to own a garden makes things simpler. It brings you back to the earth and you learn to respect the seasons. While others are trying to cook four seasons at the same time, I only cook one!
David: What turns you off when you go out to eat? What inspires you personally as someone who appreciates food?
Alain: Restaurants where you can eat tomatoes all year round, or asparagus, peas, and strawberries at Christmas really turn me off. What inspires me is grace.
David: Everyone always assumes that I drink whiskey or high-end wine on a nightly basis, but after most shifts what I want is a cold beer. Is there a chef version of that, where maybe you go home after the end of a long day and crave a frozen, microwavable meal? What do you like to eat when you dine casually?
Alain: There is no chef version of that for me, I don't think. I feel so lucky to have my own gardens. I eat fresh and natural vegetables from my kitchen gardens every day regardless of the occasion.
David: What's it like having a restaurant on the Top 25 list for the world? Do you find that customers sometimes have expectations that are out of whack with reality as a result?
Alain: Not really. When our guests enter the restaurant Arpège, they probably have been to a lot of other three-star restaurants, so it is normal they have an opinion on what they eat. It is like going to a concert when you love music, you’ll have an opinion about what you hear. As I said, it is important for me to listen to my guests. When they talk to me of temperatures or seasoning of a dish for instance, I can give their feedback to the kitchen and adjust my dish. Only failure serves to make us stronger, not success.
David: L'Arpege has an incredible wine list, and—as we talked about when I was there—I was stunned to find Edmond Vatan Sancerre. What do you look for when putting together a wine list for your restaurant?
Alain: I try to focus on winemakers who share with me the same spirit and values. A natural wine, often a white wine, as vegetables pair very well with white wine. Chenin and Riesling grapes are the best match for vegetables!
David: I'm so happy to hear you say that. I drink white wine almost every day and, to me, it's the most complex and food friendly drink in the world, yet most people think red is where the action is. You seem to really enjoy what you do, which is always a good sign for any business. While we were waiting to get in, I remember you telling a guy on the street to come inside so you could cook for him. What is it that pleases you the most about cooking?
Alain: You could ask the same question to a saxophonist and the answer would probably be the same. It is beautiful to play with your senses. It helps to be precise! Work with your hands, taste what you are cooking, smell the flavor, arrange a nice dish on a plate, make it an art form, listen to the flame sing, it is wonderful!
David: If you were on your death bed and you could only have one last meal before moving on into the afterlife, what would that meal be?
Alain: I would fast!
Alright, it's about time we let the entire cat out of the bag here (its head has been peeking out for a few months). We are indeed releasing a St. George/K&L Wine Merchants collaborative Faultline gin this year. You've been asking if we're doing it. The answer is yes, but there's so much more beyond just the simple affirmative. We wanted to do something special this time around—our own version of Record Store Day or the Feis Ile Festival. A project that would celebrate our many relationships and the power of those genre-crossing influences. An event that would reward faithful customers who visit with us on a daily basis. Something unique to bring people together and into the store. So here's the deal:
We partnered with iconic punk record producer (and K&L customer) Lisa Fancher from Frontier, who in turn hooked us up with legendary comic artist Jaime Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame, to do something outside of our normal comfort zone. Jaime drew up three different labels for our approval and we loved each of them so much that we decided to turn this annual singular tradition into a raging three-headed monster.
But could we actually create two other spirits worthy of the same yearly hype? St. George distiller Dave Smith told us there were still a few casks of Bourbon left over from the Breaking & Entering project, plus he had been working on a new absinthe formula. Those were potential candidates for a trio of Faultline releases. Dave and I have been working on all three expressions for months now and the time to unleash them is finally nigh. So where do Lisa Fancher and Frontier Records come into play? I'm glad you asked:
I'll let Frontier manager Julie Masi and Lisa herself model the goods above. When you buy any of the 2015 limited edition Faultline releases, you will get an accompanying seven inch vinyl single depending on which bottle(s) you purchase. The Faultline gin comes with a limited edition Adolescents record—the punk super group from Fullerton. The Faultline absinthe comes with a limited edition Christian Death record—the groundbreaking Los Angeles goth band fronted by the late Rozz Williams. The Faultline Bourbon comes with a limited edition Weirdos record—the late-70s LA act that would go on to influence groups like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Not only do the labels match the sleeves, but the vinyl itself matches the color of the spirit!
But here's the catch: starting November 5th these three releases will only be available in our three retail locations. Not online. Not via the phone. This is a celebration of California retail, California music, California art, and California booze. We therefore have to give our California customers first dibs.
Supplies will be limited and we cannot guarantee inventory beyond what will be on hand in each location. I'm heading over to St. George to put the final touches on everything later this week. If we have extras leftover after the in-store promotion we'll definitely make those bottles available via our traditional methods. We don't have final pricing available just yet, but I'll make the costs known as soon as I can.
Oh.......one last thing.
If you show up to our Hollywood store on November 5th to get a bottle (or ten) you can have Jaime and Lisa sign your merchandise. They'll be in the store all evening to celebrate the launch, chit-chat about art and punk rock, and help make your limited edition goods even more valuable by adding their John Hancock. And if you're in San Francisco, you can stop by our new Harrison Street superstore (opening October 30th) to have distiller Dave Smith sign your bottle. I'll be there as well to watch over all the mayhem and make sure this momentous event goes off without a hitch. Redwood City will also have bottles on hand, but no signing events.
So whether you're a booze collector, a record collector, or a comic collector, there's something here for you. And if you like to drink, well, that goes without saying. I'll have more news as the date gets closer, but this is a notice for you to mark your calendars. At 5 PM on November 5th these bottles will go live for those of you who can make it over to one of our three locations. We're expecting the action to be hot and heavy, as Lisa and Jaime have way more fans than we do.