For three years Chizuko Niikawa has been a sake sommelier at hideaway Sakagura, the restaurant in the bowels of a midtown office building. In that time she’s served everyone from clueless first-daters to one of Japan’s most notorious soccer players (who apparently gets his feathers ruffled if he’s served vegetables) to a certain famous chef that she then knew only as Mr. Kakunko, a reference to his proclivity for dining at the bar with his favorite $100 bottle of sake for company. We asked her to clue us in about the art of sake.
What’s the difference between the sake brewing regions? Do you have a favorite?
Good sake is supposed to be made with really beautiful, clean water. My hometown, Akita Prefecture, is very small and calm, and there’s a big mountain nearby. It makes really nice rice and the water is amazing, so the sake is also amazing.
What’s another good one, in case you’re being biased?
Niigata is close to Tokyo, but they have many mountains and nice rivers so water is really clean. It’s a cold-weather region so they make nice sake. In Akita the food is very salty since salty food keeps better in cold weather— the sake is very flavorful and much richer than Niigata sake.
So you pair sakes with strong flavors with foods that also have strong flavors?
Most superpremium sake is like a fragrant food or flower, so I pair it with something similar like a sashimi or carpaccio. Regular sake’s flavor is much richer than superpremium so I pair it with a main course. Then we’ll pair a sake that has aged over eight or ten years (one of our specials is over 30 years old) with a chocolate or black-sesame crème brûlée.
What’s the most expensive bottle you carry?
Myoka Rangyoku from Fukushima Prefecture. One bottle is $650. It’s brewed by Daishichi brewery in Sukushima — one of the famous, really good breweries. The sake is made with really high-grade sake rice, and the brewery is very strict about making it the really classic, oldest way. The method’s name is kimoto. It’s a really hard way to make really good sake. And it’s aged three years.
Will you correct people when they’re showing off their sake knowledge on a date?
The boyfriend will try to explain about sake to the girlfriend — most of them explain things a little wrong or funny, but I don’t want to break the atmosphere of the couple, so I don’t want to correct them.
What’s a common mistake?
Americans believe only cheap sake is better hot. That’s wrong actually. And our restaurant never uses a microwave, because it tastes totally different. We use hot water and put it into superpremium sake for just one minute. It shouldn’t be superhot.
I hear one of your regulars is a well-known chef.
We had a regular customer who always ordered Kakunko — a small bottle is over $100. We would say, “Oh, Mr. Kakunko is coming again— he’s so cool, he’s so sexy.” Then one day Taiko, my restaurant owner’s really good friend, came to Sakagura at the same time Mr. Kakunko was having his meal with sake at the bar by himself. She noticed him and said, “Isn’t that Jean-Georges?” I said I didn’t know. She said, “He’s a famous chef!” Taiko came close to him and said, “Hey Jean.” Then finally we knew he was Jean-Georges!