Kanpai! Previewing Tokonoma’s World Sake Day Dinner

tajima 9+ wagyu striploin, served with assorted mushrooms

Yukino Ochiai from Deja vu Sake

“Never use the microwave to warm sake!” Australia’s first and only sake educator told us with a smile and a waggly finger. She pointed to the roof, “Grandmother would be crying up there.”

For Yukino Ochiai, sake is all about family and nostalgia. She remembers serving the traditional wine in little cups to her grandmother, a refined and resolute sake drinker. The drink itself is steeped in bloodlines – some of the labels Yukino sources for her and her husband’s wine and sake importing business are from Japanese sake houses up to 460 years old, spanning seven generations of the same family. Perhaps that’s why her business is called Deja Vu Sake Co., or perhaps not – “I’m going to start using that!” she chuckled when we inquired.

Warm and gracious, Yukino is in town for a World Sake Day dinner to be hosted at Tokonoma next week (Oct 19). Bookings are strictly limited – only fifty people will be treated to a six-course degustation of cutting-edge Japanese cuisine, paired with Yukino’s exquisite taste in sake. We got a sneak peek of the night.

TOkonoma World Sake Day Dinner preview

It all kicked off with a kanpai and a flute of sparkling sake, Dewazakura Saku Sparkling Junmai. Already our perception of sake was blown. Much like champagne, the drink was light and beautifully clear with a fruity sweetness, but nothing cloying. You’d expect nothing less from the Dewazakura brand, a two time winner at the International Wine Challenge, the highest number yet for a sake brand.

As we sipped, Yukino explained what makes sake so unique – the ephemeral fifth flavour of ‘umami’. Umami is a savoury flavour, high levels of which are found in mushrooms, soy sauce, tomatoes, and pretty much all of Japanese cuisine – “Even the baby food in Japan has umami,” Yukino laughed. As a wine, sake is not one drink but many. The main ingredients of rice, water, yeast, and koji (mold), can be tinkered to produce a brew which is variably sweet or sharp, clear or golden. Unlike wine, it has a third of the acidity. Yukino sees herself as a sake “translator”, breaking down myths and opening eyes to the diversity of the drink.

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Speaking of eye-opening, the first dish was a visually stunning platter of freshly shucked pacific oysters with blood orange tosazu and mikan-shisho granita. The oysters were plump, seawatery, but underscored nicely by the sweetness of the orange. A few surprise flat Angasi oysters snuck their way in – native Australian beauties that you don’t often see. Alongside the oysters was served the kangaroo tartare with blood lime-petita mayonnaise, native herbs, and a sesame cracker – one of our favourites from the night. The raw roo was tender and gamey, complimented nicely by the zest of the blood lime. The cracker was nutty and sweet, accented by a slight saltiness from what we parsed as nori.

Tokonoma's kangaroo tartare

An Amanoto Junmai Ginjo paired well with this first wave, a crisp and dry elemental sake from one of the smallest producers in Yukino’s portfolio. A junmai uses only rice and water, and in this very limited brew the two are sourced five kilometres apart. Yukino described the rice used for this as aromatic – chilled, it was sweet, refreshing and earthy. Kind of like a hailstone.

Amanoto Junmai Ginjo label close up
Amanoto Junmai Ginjo

Tokonoma sushi selection

The table’s eyes were locked on the sashimi Balmain bug as the Sashimi Omakase (chef’s daily selection) was placed in front of us. The selection also included salmon, mackerel, kingfish, and salmon roe, alongside a few palette cleansers like radish and sliced young green almonds. This bounty was paired with a Yoshinogawa Ginjo Gokujo, ginjo being the second-highest grade of sake, Yoshinogawa being the oldest sake house in Yukino’s portfolio, dating back to the feudal years of 1548.

“Salt and fat is a very good friend of sake,” smiles Yukino. Red wine can make seafood taste unpleasantly fishy because it has high levels of iron and acidity. No so with sake – its mellow profile balances well with the fish eggs and oil-rich sashimi.

This friendship extends from the sea to the land and air, as we soon discovered with a trio of deliciously crunchy deep-fried dishes – a plate of asparagus and pancetta tempura with aji mayo, another of zucchini flowers filled with tofu-fetta, and a third of polenta chicken karaage with chicken dashi mayonnaise, all paired with a very smooth, very soft Houraisen Beshi Tokubetsu Junmai. “Sake is very… accommodating”, Yukino jests.

This junmai hails from the Houraisen brewery, located 700m above sea level in the cool mountains of the Aichi prefecture, home to the softest water in Japan. The climate is ideal for rice and sake production – it’s telling as the sweetness gives way to a refined dry finish, a counterweight to the light crisp of the tempura, textural tofu-fetta, moreish umami pork, and kick of the aji mayo. It’s little wonder ‘beshi’ means best.

Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and coated in tempura batter
Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and coated in tempura batter
Zuchinni flowers filled with tofu-fetta
Zuchinni flowers filled with tofu-fetta
Polenta chicken karaage
Polenta chicken karaage

The karaage requires its own paragraph. In an age of gluten intolerance and carb-awareness, the polenta coating was a deliciously welcome twist. Next to the chicken dashi mayo was Yuzukoshō, a fermented paste made of chilli, yuzu peels, and salt which is commonplace in Japan, less so here. Small touches like these added aroma, sweetness, and spice, lifting this karaage well above par.

Aka miso glazed duck hearts with brocollini, goma vinaigrette, and fresh almonds was served next alongside a limited edition Dewazakura Ichiro Junmai Daiginjo sake. While the offal dish wasn’t as popular as some of the others, the hearts had a pleasant, springy chew. The champion-titled sake had an aptly light punch to it.

Aka miso glazed duck hearts with brocollini, goma vinaigrette, and fresh almonds

Yukino explained that sake splits into two groups – fruity florals on one side, which is more characteristic of modern sakes and generally preferred by sommeliers, and on the other side, the more traditional umami-heavy sakes, typically chosen by chefs for their higher acidity. The next sake, a Tengumai Yamahai Jikomi Junmai fell squarely into the second category, having appeared at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Melbourne pop-up and on a private label for Tetsuya. As an orthodox style sake, this junmai is matured in a tank for more than 12 months, giving it its golden colour and coveted mushroomy air. 

“This sake is lovely to drink warm,” Yukino mentioned, prompting a discussion about hot sake versus cold sake. Generally speaking, Yukino recommends cold sake on a warm day, warm sake on a cold day. To chill, add ice so that the temperature drops to 15 degrees. This is especially good for Ginjo and Daiginjo varieties.

To warm, Yukino has a robust thesis – “Sake goes nicely into your system, your soul, when it’s at body temperature,” she explained. At this temperature, the warm tartaric acid in the sake rounds so that the flavour is fuller and tastier. She suggests heating your sake to 40 degrees in a ceramic sake carafe (Tokkuri), sat in a bath of 80 degree water for 5 minutes – “Can I just microwave it?” the waiter joshed. Yukino chased him off.

When it came back out, the heated Tengumai Junmai was transformed into an almost milky, alcoholic umami soup. It goes well with meat – sushi too. Yukino tapped her nose, “Serve warm sake at your next dinner party to impress your guests!”

tajima 9+ wagyu striploin, served with assorted mushrooms

There couldn’t have been a better accompaniment to the last main of the night – a thoroughly marbled, melt-in-your-mouth tajima 9+ wagyu striploin, served with assorted mushrooms. Definitely our favourite – the striplion was light but had a bold meaty taste, especially when dipped in the yuzu sauce and sprinkled with herby salt flakes. Capped off with a sip of that warm Junmai and we were in umami heaven.

On to dessert! The waiters brought out a shio koji crème diplomat with coconut, white chocolate and beetroot smores, along with a flute of Houraisen Ao Shiso Kaoru Umeshu. An Umeshu is made by infusing ume fruit with sochu (a distilled spirit with a sake taste but vodka-esque alcohol content). The Houraisen one was infused with a Japanese herb called shiso, giving it an aquamarine tinge and herby edge. The dessert itself was an elegant take on strawberries and cream – cleverly employing the same koji mold used in sake production.

Tokonoma dessert - shio koji crème diplomat with coconut, white chocolate and beetroot smores

Meanwhile we couldn’t quite place our fingers on the smell of this final umeshu. Some of us smelt amaretto. Others picked up on a maraschino cherry scent. A hint of molasses? Cinnamon? Tatami mats? Either way, the texture was sumptuous – rich with a gentle spice, a sweet and tangy flavour like fresh frozen berries, and a natural lift to the berry-based diplomat. Yukino mentioned that it also goes well with blue cheese.

“You’re going to wake up happy tomorrow,” laughed Yukino. Whether you love Japanese food or just want to find out more about sake, the World Sake Day Degustation Dinner at Tokonoma is a night unmissable, and Yukino’s sake pairing, a match made in heaven. We’re sure her grandmother is very happy.

World Sake Day Degustation Dinner at Tokonoma
Wednesday 19th October 2016

Tokonoma, 44 Bridge Street (Enter via Loftus Lane)
Time: 7pm
Price: $180 
Bookings (essential as spaces are limited!): tokonoma-sydney.com

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