A Mansion of Dreams

When I was a lad, saké was something warm and exotic we drank at the local sushi bar that served underage kids. Not ones for moderation, we used to do something called a “saké bomb,” where we would drop the small ceramic cup of hot saké into our glass of beer, and then down the whole thing.

Saké Still Life (with Sushi Knife)

I remember once, several bombs in, I chucked a California roll at my friend Pat, sitting a few seats away. It hit him on the forehead and fell into his saké-and-beer. He lifted the glass, drank the bomb and ate the roll at the bottom in one epic gulp, and we all applauded.

A few years later, I worked as a sous chef in a French restaurant that, inexplicably, had a sushi bar in the back by the kitchen. I befriended the sushi chef, his kitchen and mine were connected, and when it was slow I used to pour saké from the big cardboard saké dispenser into my tall water glass (so the hot-tempered French owner wouldn’t know it was saké) and hang out to chat and eat the dishes he would make me.

Saké was always pretty much saké — a hot, sweet drink associated with sushi bars that would make me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Until one day I realized it could be something more. Perhaps it was a day when I finally had some money. Or maybe it was noticing that there were options on the menu besides “Hot saké” and “beer.” Whatever it was, I discovered good saké — surprisingly, usually served cold!

It was a bit of a revelation, like the first time I had real brie in France. The sometimes cloying sweetness replaced by a dry, fragrant complexity hinting at anise, pear and jasmine. Sakés even had their own flavor profile speak, with presence occupying the descriptive place of “mouth-feel” you would associate with wine, and where a wine might have a certain finish, with saké you would talk about the very Japanese, kite-like “tail”. The best sakés are called junmai daigingo, followed by junmai gingo, and after that are the regular junmai. There are a number of other categories I haven’t quite sorted out that have to do with degrees of filtered-ness or rice-polishing ratio. Good topics for more research. They all taste good, and if I were a beginner again I would experiment my way up from a less-expensive junmai.

The Japanese give their sakés wonderful names. They’re not like whisky which has names like “Old Sour” or “Wild Turkey,” nor wines which can have pretentious names like “Luna” or “Eagle & Rose”. The best saké I ever had, a gift from some friends, was called “Mansion of Dreams.” (How’s that for some Miyazaki-like imagery!) Others I’ve enjoyed include “Voices in the Mist,”  “Wandering Poet” and “Well of Wisdom.” Who wouldn’t want to spend some time drinking one of those — preferably by a babbling stream pouring into a koi pond (which, fortunately, I have just outside my front door).

Next time you’re preparing Japanese food at home (nice Japanese-inspired recipe below), or heading out to the sushi bar, consider forgoing the warm little ceramic jug of cheap hot saké — especially during the summer! — and consider spending a little more for a good quality saké with a beautiful name. What’s in a name? you ask. Everything.

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Pistachio-crusted salmon with yuzu butter
serves 4-6 as a first course

1 lb. sashimi-quality salmon fillet, cut into 2 long strips, trimmed to rectangular shapes
1 cup finely chopped pistachio nuts
2 tbsp. yuzu juice (or lemon juice)
1/4 cup cold butter
1/4 cup grapeseed oil (or canola oil)

Dredge salmon strips in pistachio nuts to cover well. Heat grapeseed oil in a large non-stick pan over high heat until it begins to smoke. Place salmon strips in oil and cook, about 30 seconds on each of four sides until browned. Remove from pan to a cutting board.

In a small saucepan, heat yuzu (or lemon) juice over high heat until it begins to boil. Remove from heat and velvet in the butter by stirring gently but constantly until all butter in incorporated and sauce is velvety. Add any toasted, chopped pistachios left over in  your other pan, if you’d like. (Not the burnt ones.)

Using your sharpest knife, slice the salmon across the grain at about 1/2-inch intervals. Arrange 3 or 4 slices artfully on each plate, then drizzle with the yuzu butter and serve.

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Kaiseki in the Rain | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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