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Sake – Do you like it hot or cold? I can’t say I am an expert on the fine art of fermented rice wine, an alcoholic beverage made from rice that has been appreciated since over a thousand years ago in Japan. A lost in translation, most Japanese restaurants in western countries believe that sake should be always served hot, and not cold. It has become a make-believe that if you drink your sake cold, you are an idiot; drink hot, you are a sake connoisseur.

Until I was in Japan two years ago and introduced to the cold premium sake, poured into an overflowing glass sitting inside a sake wooden box to signify prosperity in abundance, my appreciation of sake had changed ever since.

This is my first time back to Ocean Room since the full renovation makeover few years back. The underwater theme with air blown glass seashells chandeliers be gone, Ocean Room now resembles a tidal wave made out of 40,000 wooden cylinders engulfing the whole dining area, a dramatic design by Yasumichi Morita. But tonight we will be attending our Sake Master dinner in the private dining room upstairs.

This event has been put together by the lovely Krissie at Wasamedia and two tables full of food bloggers have been invited to attend the very first sake master dinner. The dining room upstairs has been elegantly decorated with masterful Ikebana flower arrangement by head chef’s Raita Noda’s mother. We are welcomed to some briny Sydney Rock Oysters and a welcome drink of sake, served in a bamboo cup, a last minute DIY, cut from a long bamboo.

We are very lucky to have Sake master Toshi Maeda flown in from Melbourne to give us some insights and teach us how to appreciate fine sake he has brought along with him this evening. Toshi tells us how he fell in love with sake when he had his first taste in his mid 20s. He strongly believes that Japanese premium sake will be fully enjoyed by Australian people in a similar way of wine and started importing Japanese premium sake into the country. Toshi also owns Sake & Grill MAEDAYA in Richmond, Victoria where sake of course is a must try on the menu.

“If memory serves me right, behind every successful man, there is a woman – just like matching premium sake and fine cuisine.”

Ocean Room’s head chef, Raita Noda has also spent 6 weeks to come up with a 7-course menu by using sake as one of the ingredients. Raita admits that it is actually a very challenging task and also his first time trying to incorporate sake into the food. We will soon find out.

Just like fine wine, sake appreciation is sheer work of art. I am glad we’ve been given the tasting notes of all six sake we are going to try this evening. Sake master Toshi tells us that Sake is split into two categories: Junmai and non Junmai. Junmai means “pure rice” means the sake is made from only rice, water, years and mold, whereas non Junmai will have some added alcohol. Then both type of sake will be graded in different levels according to its quality:

  • Seimaibuai (S) – Rice polishing rate. eg. 60% means 40% polished away from a brown rice.
  • Rice (R) – type of sake rice specially grown for sake making
  • Nihonshudo (N) – Sake Meter Value (SMV). The higher is the dryer, the lower is sweeter.

Tonight we will be only tasting pure Junmai sake, from the ultimate premium Junmai Daiginjo, follow by Junmai Ginjo, to the lower grade of Honjozo. I pretend to know what I am doing, but actually I don’t. That’s why this Sake Master dinner is perfect for the beginners like me.

A pre-dinner tasting plate is presented in front of us. Before we really get to appreciate the premium sake, Toshi demonstrates how food can changes the flavour of sake and wine respectively. We all nibble some of the tobiko roe, white anchovies and the smoked cod roe then take a sip from the white wine, then the sake later. The saltiness of the roe has definitely make the wine sweeter, whereas the sake becomes much fragrant.

The first course is Sake Jelly King Crab to pair with best of the best sake, Eikun Ichigin Junmai Daiginjo. The dish is beautifully presented in a two-part glass bowl where the seafood is chilled on top with crushed ice sits inside a round glass at the bottom. The sous-vide Alaskan king crab is succulent and sweet, counterbalance with little tangy cured white turnips, while the sake and sour plum jelly enhances the flavour of the sweet meat.

The Eikin Ichigin is a premium sake that has won a gold medal at the Japanese New Sake Award for ten years running. I have a quick sniff of the Eikun Ichigin, the presence of floral scent is distinctively strong and the sake itself is smooth and very soft on the palate without that sudden alcohol hit in the nasal. Toshi told us it is because of the high in mineral water they used from the village which taste even better than from the bottled water he bought in supermarket.

Sake tasting notes: Eikun Ichigin Junmai Daiginjo (Kyoto) – (S)35% (R) Yamadanishiki (N)+3.5

The East Meets West trio needs a little bit of interaction with our senses and paired with Niwano Uguisu Tokubetsu Junmai, a clean, dry sake with a tropical nose such as lychees, passion fruit or pineapple sometimes. It looks like two dumplings from the outlook, the thin slices of fresh cuttlefish ravioli is soft and translucent, with a creamy sack of sea urchin embedded underneath. The Crystal Bay prawns are perfectly poached to a tender yet bouncy mouth-feel, infused with green chilli and shiso salsa for a subtle heat punch.

Sake tasting notes: Niwano Uguisu Tokubetsu Junmai (Fukuoka) – (S)60% (R) Yamadanishiki (N)+3

But it is the flash sakura smoked ocean trout that has us in glee and I feel like in a chemistry class back in school days. The ocean trout is housed inside a glass chamber of houji-tea smoke, a test tube of ocean trout pearls vinaigrette on the side which we are informed to shake well and pour on top. The ocean trout is slightly seared on the skin side and the smoky flesh is tender and delicious.

The next course is Blue Fin Tuna Creation done in five different unique styles with their own characteristics. Before proceeding, we are given an extra tasting note of the tuna creation so that we know what we are eating:

  • Seared Akami – with foie gras, ponzu jelly and momiji radish
  • Seared Toro – with shiso julienne, sesame and lime juice
  • Zuke Akami – with dry natto, negi miso and leek julienne
  • Oil Blanched Toro – fresh wasabi, soy and kombu
  • Marinated Chutoro – with truffle, caviar and spicy daikon

I particularly enjoy the Zuke Akami, a soft cube of seasoned tuna, with crunchy dry natto beans that tasted just like black beans. Despite Chutoro is the highly regarded piece of tuna belly, I find it too soft for my liking, Toro with a little firm touch is still my favourite of them all.

Toshi has paired his favourite sake with the tuna, the Tateyama Junmai Ginjo indeed is sweet as green apple and the umami from Yamadanishiki rice.

Sake tasting notes: Tateyama Junmai Ginjo (Toyama) – (S)59% (R) Yamadanishiki + Gohyakumangoku (N)+2

By now everyone is already half drunk and my face is already flush red with glee. The pace has also changed a little and moved on to heavy dishes. The waiters bring out glass ornaments holding tealight candles in the center which we initially thought they are the extra lighting as they can see the food bloggers are struggling with the photography in dim light. We only soon realised that they are actually a tealight candle stand to hold a sake glass vase on top. This time we are going to try some hot sake, using Hatsumago Tokubetsu Honjozo. It is a lower grade sake without much of a taste when drink cold, so is best to warm it up and let it releases some of the stronger fruity flavours.

Sake tasting notes: Hatsumago Tokubetsu Honjozo (Yamagata) – (S)60% (R)Miyamanishiki (N)+4

We pair the hot sake with snapper steamed in cellophane bag. I like a parcel of surprises!

The waiter comes over and cuts away the knot, revealing a generous portion of pink snapper fillet, served with scallops, tofu, brocolini and carrot, all steamed in an aromatic sake and yuzu butter.

A quick palate cleanser before the last heavy meat course. The cleanser is a simple short glass of semi frozen Tamanohikari Junmai Touketsu shu mixed with Kyoto & Uguisu Tomari Plum Wine from Fukuoka. The fresh grated yuzu zest offers a nice citrusy flavour but most of us at the table find the shot a little too strong and only need a few spoonfuls to clean our palates.

The last savoury course is Aged Angus beef roasted with sansho pepper, served with ginjo scented jus and flame seared Roquefort cheese. The skeptical ones, believe it or not, roast beef with Roquefort blue cheese is truly a revelation. The pairing Garyubai Junmai Ginjo sake is dry and sharp, with a tasting notes of ripe apple at the beginning and finishes off with white chocolate flavour. Sadly I am not expert enough to detect them.

Sake tasting notes: Garyubai Junmai Ginjo (Shizuoka) – (S)55% (R)yamadanishiki (N)+3

Our last matching sake is white and cloudy, as one of our dining companions described it as off milk. The opague sake is unfiltered Shirakawago Junmai Nigori sake from Gifu. I try so hard to like it, but every sip of the sharp chalky rice wine sends shivers down my spine. I drink some just for the ‘sake’ of it.

Using sake in dessert is an interesting one. The fresh jobocabla looks like a grape but doesn’t have much taste to it. The sake-kasu blanchmange is silky smooth with a subtle sweetness that emphases the sharp fragrant daiginjo jelly with pomegranate. The chiffon cake is definitely a crowd pleaser of soft sponge coated in sake infused creme fraiche, served with strawberry marinated in sochu.

The masterclass is very informative and a lot more enjoyable than I expected. I have never drank so much sake in one setting. The sake master dinner lasted over 4 hours, and by the time I walk out of Ocean Room is already almost midnight. I have to wait almost an hour for my next train back to Coast, thank god I have a full belly of sake to warm my body up from inside out.

[ATFT attended Sake Master Dinner as a guest of Ocean Room, thanks to Wasamedia for the invitation!]

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Ocean Room
Ground level, Overseas Passenger Terminal
Circular Quay West, The Rocks, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9252 9585

Lunch Tuesday to Friday from 12pm
Dinner Monday to Saturday from 6pm
Late night dining until 12am Friday and Saturday

You can also purchase all the sake in this post from Sake Master Toshi Maeda's online shop based in Melbourne - Sake Japan.

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