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Sake Sommelier

Why one of New York City’s best restaurants treats sake with a reverence usually reserved for wine. — Roger Dagorn

CONVERSATION with SAKE SOMMELIER

For close to 28 years, Chanterelle has been serving classic French cuisine to New Yorkers from its airy and well-lit restaurant. In 1993, Master Sommelier, Roger Dagorn, joined Chanterelle to oversee its 5000 bottle wine cellar and in 1996 he added a surprising twist to the menu: sake. Treating Japanese rice wine with a respect normally reserved for fermented grape juice, Dagorn has introduced hundreds of New Yorkers to the pleasures of sake over the last 11 years and Chopsticks New York caught up with him to ask how this all started.

When did you first discover sake?
I had always been interested in sake but I’d been rather disappointed in the quality of what I’d been tasting. Then, about 11 years ago, I was invited to a tasting that a freelance writer was holding in his apartment on the Upper West Side. And I was quite surprised at the quality of what I tasted there and I knew then that I could do something at Chanterelle with sake.

How did people react when you started doing this?
At first, many people said, “I really don’t like sake,” to which I would reply, “Not to worry, this is not ordinary sake, this is real sake.” I would ask them to try it and if they still didn’t like it I’d bring them a glass of wine. I had so many customers who converted to sake at that point that it was incredible. Of course, there were still a few who were set against sake but they were in the minority.

Pairing Western food with sake must be a real challenge.
Not necessarily. I’ve had professionals taste sake blind and they couldn’t recognize it as sake at all. Some of them thought it was a dry white wine but they couldn’t figure out from where. I would give others a sweeter sake and they would think it’s Madeira or a sherry. It’s not what they expect from sake. The artisinal sakes that I serve are much more interesting on the palate and on the nose.

So is your approach to pairing sake and food the same as pairing wine and food?
My approach is very much like pairing wines. When I do a flight of wines I follow a basic premise of white before red, young before old, dry before sweet, good before great, and I follow that progression throughout. With sake I try to do the same thing. The sake needs to have a structure that complements the dish. If it’s a fish course, especially if it’s cured fish or raw fish, that’s a no brainer. I’d certainly consider a junmai-shu and maybe a ginjo-shu or a daiginjo-shu or sometimes even a junmai daiginjo. You want to pair the highest level of sake that has substance and a little fruitiness on the nose and yet has some weight. And the aged sakes, like the koshus, work very well with red meat. I have one on my list, it’s a Narutotai Daikoshu, 1988 Vintage that has a richness and a smokiness to it that works great with red meat, as well as with game like rabbit. And duck is a very good match with it.

Are a lot of sakes aged?

No, and in fact most sakes are meant to be consumed within the first six months because after that they start losing their freshness and become stale. But there are certain sakes that are made to be aged. They turn a deeper color and they acquire a very rich, smoky aroma. This particular Daikoshu that I have was made in 1988, it spent 8 years in the cask and has been in the bottle ever since and it seems to evolve in the bottle and it just keeps getting better and better. I can’t tell you how long it’s going to last but I’m really enjoying it right now.

Are there any sakes you particularly recommend to people who are on the fence about sake?
There are a number of sakes that I really enjoy that I try to introduce as often as possible to novices who are hesitant. There are three or four sake brewers that I think are just outstanding. One is Narutotai, the second is Tsukasabotan, both from the island of Shikoku. And another is Ichinokura. Their high ends, their junmai daiginjos are leaner and crisper and can fool someone into thinking that they’re a crisp, white wine. Otokoyama is another that’s very well known throughout Japan even though it’s a very small house. To me those are the highlights of really great sake.

What would you say to someone who wants to learn more about sake?
Experiment. There’s a lot to experiment with out there. Certainly seek advice from purveyors in wine shops, and there are some very good shops that are carrying sakes and they have people there who can direct you to what they think is appropriate.

If you had to choose between trying an unknown bottle of wine and an unknown bottle of sake, which would you be more curious to taste?
Actually, I would make sure I tasted them both!

–Chanterelle–
2 Harrison St. (at Hudson St.) New York, NY 10013
TEL: 212-966-6960 www.chanterellenyc.com