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Sake Sommelier

The Secret Heart of Sake — Chizuko Niikawa & Ayuchi Momose

CONVERSATION WITH Sake sommelier

Chizuko Niikawa (left) and Ayuchi Momose (right), certified sake sommeliers, help you find your favorites.

To get to Sakagura, you enter an anonymous midtown office building, walk past the security desk and down a set of utility stairs. At the end of a long hallway you’d expect to find a parking garage, but instead you discover Sakagura, one of America’s best sake restaurants, designed as the perfect showcase for its enormous assortment of sakes. The curators of this massive sake collection are sake sommeliers, Chizuko Niikawa and Ayuchi Momose. Both of them have been with Sakagura for a couple of years and here they talk to Chopsticks New York about their deep connections with sake.

Can you tell us a little bit about Sakagura?
Momose: We aren’t really a sake restaurant, we’re more like a sake library. Not only do we want to sell sake but we want to educate our customers; we want them to experience the best of what they can afford. We have sakes ranging from lower prices all the way up to $600 per bottle. Out of our more than 200 sakes, all of them except one are available by the glass.
Niikawa: I personally believe this is the best sake bar in New York City and also the United States. It might even be the best sake restaurant in the world. It’s the first place I worked as a sake sommelier so I was super-lucky that my first place is the best place.

How can you tell what a guest would like to drink?
Niikawa: For absolute beginners I bring the customer two kinds of sake, a very fragrant type and then a very clean type, both simple and easy to drink. Then the customer tells me which they prefer.
Momose: First I have to ask the customer what they look for in their favorite drink. I usually compare wine and sake and try to find what will attract them. For some female customers who drink a lot of Alsace wines or something sweeter like the German wines I usually recommend something lighter. For male customers who drink a lot of vodka I recommend something heavier and stronger with a cleaner flavor like a kimoto or a honjozo sake. Those are light, clean and sharp.

Are there any general rules about pairing sake with food?
Momose: The biggest difference between wine and sake is with wine you decide on the food first then choose the wine, but with sake you do the opposite. All sake goes well with Japanese food, but if you have good bottle of sake we try to find something that matches that particular sake. That’s why we serve so many small dishes here, so we can find a complement for your sake.
Niikawa: It’s a bit similar to wine, but the way you drink wine is to start with a less expensive one and move to a more expensive one, but sake works the opposite way, starting with a more premium sake that’s fragrant and clean and smooth, like a daiginjo which goes well with raw fish or sashimi or seasonal vegetables, then we choose something with a richer flavor to match a main dish, like a junmai.

Can you recommend some food and sake pairings?
Niikawa: An amazing one to try very easily at home is sake with cheese. Blue cheese smells strong and tastes sharp but pairing a junmai with it makes it sweeter, and daiginjo pairs well with fresh mozzarella.
Momose: I don’t like a sake that goes with everything. I like sake that is very plain or very flowery, and that pairs well with light, white fish, like fluke sashimi or with Italian food like beef carpaccio.

When did you become interested in sake?

Momose: The first sake that made an impact on me was Daishichi Minowamon. When I tasted it, I almost cried. I was pretty young and I didn’t know about higher class sakes, but it opened up a door to a new world. I have so many favorites now, but that was the moment when I thought, “Okay, I want to learn about this.”
Niikawa: I wasn’t interested in sake until after I was 25 years old. I was born in Akita Prefecture out in the countryside, and I moved to Tokyo to work in the fashion and design business. One day, I got a phone call from my mom saying that my dad was very sick so I went back to my hometown to take care of him. Four days later, he passed away and I finally realized that my hometown was so beautiful, it had great rice, a river, the mountain, and I felt that I should do something good for it. I realized that it was famous for its sake, and I thought that might be right for me.

What do you recommend for someone trying sake for the first time?
Niikawa:
In Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter a brewery makes the first sake of the season, and I recommend them to people who haven’t tried sake. They’re easy to drink and the fragrance is very fresh and juicy, like fruit. It’s also slightly sweeter than regular sake.
Momose: Just ask for advice. A lot of Americans use 3 words to describe what they want: dry, smooth and clean. But sometimes I bring something a little sweeter or a little more flowery and they choose something completely different from what they thought. Just forget about what you think you like and ask for advice. It’s okay not to know.

Sakagura
211 E. 43rd St., B1, (bet. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-953-7253 / www.sakagura.com