Wine & Spirits

The perfect pairing: Sake 101 with Steak & Sushi’s owner and sommelier

Pairing a gourmet meal with the perfect wine is part science, part art. But when done just right, it can elevate a meal to new tastes.

Sake (Japanese rice wine) has its fans and its foes. With a 3,000-year history, and made from just four ingredients—water, rice, yeast, and koji (a fermentation culture)—sake is a simple, yet complex drink. Should you enjoy it warm? Cold? What type of cup do you use? Do you sip or gulp? Sake options are somewhat limited in many of our city’s liquor stores, and it may be this lack of exposure that results in some Ottawans shying away from sake when choosing a wine for their meal. Yet, when sake is paired in just the right way, it can transform the dining experience.

We spoke to Lee Wagner, sommelier and owner of Steak & Sushi, to help guide us towards that exceptional dining experience of pairing sake with your meal.

Lee Wagner, sommelier and owner of Steak & Sushi.

You have a range of sake options at Steak & Sushi, including a sake flight that you choose for your guests. How do you choose which sakes to include in the flight?

I choose the flight to showcase the different styles of sake. Generally, from an entry level “junmai”, which is more dry and full bodied, to a “nigori”, which is unfiltered, cloudy and slightly sweet, then a “ginjo”, which is delicate and complex. You can really see a wide range of styles this way. Especially if you only know sake as the “warm rice beverage served in a tiny ceramic cup.”

What can at-home chefs learn about sake pairing?

Just like wine, you need to drink it first. Once you get a feel for the sake (full bodied, lighter, dry, sweet), then you can decide what best to match with it. Cooking with it is also fun.

Do you have any tips for buying sake at the LCBO?  

If you’re just starting out with sake, try and buy at least two different types at once. This will help you to compare and contrast the different styles, then you can see what type of sake you really enjoy.  This is how I started to learn about wine when I began my career.

Are there any sakes Steak & Sushi offers that are more difficult to come by?

We carry a number of sakes that are not found at the LCBO. My favourite is a “daiginjo” from an eclectic producer called Kuheiji San. It’s called “Eau Du Desir.” Kuheiji San used to be a fashion designer in France. He refuses to sell to anyone who doesn’t have a proper sake list or use the appropriate glassware. When I drink his sake, I notice incredibly complex aromas of grapefruit, basil, honey and orange blossom. The taste lasts on the tongue for over three minutes.  Very cool stuff. Definitely not what you would expect if you are first trying sake.

How do you choose between hot or cold sake with sushi? 

Generally, warm sake is only recommended for inexpensive types. Good sake (e.g., ginjo, daiginjo) should be served slightly chilled in a wine glass. Interesting fact: warm sake will get you drunk faster than cold sake.  The blood metabolizes it quicker. Although that may not be the best reason to choose your sake!

Are there any sakes that you suggest with steak? 

Unlike most wine, sake tends to be more delicate and light when it is more expensive. For example, a “ginjo” or “daiginjo” is meant to be drunk on its own or with something very light (think sashimi). Therefore, inexpensive sake tends to be better with full-bodied foods like a rare steak.  That being said, a “yamahai” (which uses a specific process to add lactic acid) is an outstanding choice with a steak.  More full-bodied, but still complex.

Try some for yourself at Steak & Sushi, 87 Clarence St., 613-695-8787