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Sake Sommelier

Sake in The Heart of New York City’s Hippest Neighborhood — Marja Samsom

They say that artists are pioneers. In the case of Marja Samsom, chef/owner of The Kitchen Club and Chibi’s Bar, this especially rings true. Born in the Netherlands, she came to the United States as an artist. With a couple of twists and turns, she opened a restaurant and a sake bar on the corner of Prince and Mott Street in 1990. She was not only the pioneer of the Nolita neighborhood, but also one of the first chefs to have a Japanese influenced fusion restaurant in downtown NYC. Being a witness of the growth of sake trend, she shares her thoughts toward sake with Chopsticks New York.

What was your first encounter with Japan, and sake?
When I was 16 years old, my father went to Japan to do business. Upon return, he gave my mother a beautiful gift, a broach from Mikimoto Pearls. It was so beautiful. I instantly became interested in the Japanese culture. I didn’t have sake until I came here to the States and had it in a sushi restaurant and fell in love with the hot sake, but then I noticed the cold sake I liked very much too. The first place I tried higher-end sake was Hasaki, I forgot the name but the one I had came in this bamboo covered bottle so beautiful, and I immediately got interested.

Sake must have been a new thing in the 90s. How were people reacting then? Has it changed over the years?
Sake was on my menu from the very beginning in 1990. I had six or seven at first. Harushika, Onigoroshi, Bishonen, etc. Japanese people came, and of course, they looked at me like, “who does she think she is, this European woman selling sake in a Kappogi (Japanese Style Apron)”. There was no other fusion restaurant downtown. Of course there were some really serious Japanese food restaurants already. It was quite popular, and I felt it was quite appropriate home cooking with Japanese influence. People were much more reluctant back then about sake, they’d say “I’ll have this less expensive one” or something. Now, it’s a different story, they order sake by its name, because they are more experienced with it. Today I have about 25 different sakes. The awareness of things Japanese, places like Nobu brought attention to Japanese food, has definitely affected people’s awareness and perception of sake. Young people working in the market today are definitely influenced by older Japanese chefs, and the influence is still growing, because it doesn’t happen over night in the first place. It started growing in the 90s when more young Japanese people started entering the industry. The popularity of sake came with the popularity of sushi, and the general market’s interest in other Japanese things. Also, the lack of snobbery in the sake world also helped its popularity. No one says you cannot drink sake if you don’t know it.

What are some of the sakes you like, and the sakes popular in your restaurant?
I recently tried a very interesting sake at Chanterelle Restaurant called Harushika Tokimeki. It was a sparkling sake with flavors of apricot and honey. I like it very much, Moriko, Chiyomusubi, and Tsukasabotan are some of the most popular sakes here, Moriko being the most popular. It’s a very smooth sake by itself, it goes well with food.

What are some of your signature dishes, and how would you pair them with sake?
Our Black Cod with Miso goes really well with Chiyomusubi because the sake doesn’t interfere with the salty sweet miso flavor, and it brings out the taste of the food. I recently created new popular dish Monk Fish with Fresh Ginger and White Asparagus, paired with Gokyo, a non-pasteurized draft summer sake with a very fresh taste, but it’s also very fragrant, which goes very well with fresh ginger.

Do you think sake is being marketed well in the US?
Years ago there was a movement to change the sake labels, Americanize them. Like how cigar bands have magic and romance, so do sake labels. I think the sake bottle is so interesting from the graphics point of view, the allure of it is in the label. By Americanizing the labels it may lose its allure, and I think some of the brands may become more boring as it appeals to younger westerners market. Of course, styles change over time, take for example wine bottles. In sake’s case, I think changing the label doesn’t work. It should have a mystery so consumers can discover it, find the value of it themselves, at that moment you have a relationship. I think it’s recovering from that trend now because the market’s growing. As an eleven year-old veteran of her own establishment, Chibi, our mascot, couldn’t agree more. Why don’t you come over and check it out for yourself.

The Kitchen Club
30 Prince St. (bet. Elizabeth & Mott Sts.)
New York, NY 10012
TEL: 212-274-0025