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This LA Sommelier Wants to Demystify the World of Sake

Natalie B. Compton

The last thing you want to do at an izakaya is fuck up your drink order, so it's time to learn your junmais from your daiginjos.

Although Los Angeles has a thriving Japanese food scene, something was missing in the market for chef Charles Namba and sommelier Courtney Kaplan.

"We felt like when we came from New York to LA, there was great Japanese food and a strong community but not a lot of izakaya food," Kaplan said. "There were a lot of places to get really great sushi and really great ramen, but a lot of the izakayas are either really far away in Torrance or Gardena, or they're in Little Tokyo and not really reflecting on what's happening in Japan right now."

So the couple opened Tsubaki, a modern izakaya in Echo Park with a menu of seasonally driven Japanese tavern food, and an even bigger menu of small-production sake.

Tsubaki, a new izakaya in LA's Echo Park neighborhood. All photos by the author.

Courtney Kaplan pours biodynamic Kimura Shiki, a.k.a. Miracle Sake, that goes well with foie gras.

"I really felt like a lot of the sake lists around town were sort of similar in that they were the same five or six well-known brands, which make really great sake, but there's nobody shining light on the little guys," Kaplan said. "We wanted to showcase some of the more interesting regional selections and seasonal sakes that maybe guests in LA aren't exposed to yet."

For the average diner, sitting down to a menu of 25 craft sake options might be an overwhelming-as-hell situation. If you spent your suburban adolescence sinking sake bombs, how do you go about ordering sake without looking like a dink?

"I think the polishing dictates the flavors in a lot of ways. Learning words like junmai and ginjo and daiginjo is really helpful," Kaplan said, referring to the terms used to define a sake's polishing level, or how much of the rice grain gets polished away.

"It's mostly fats and proteins on the outside—the inside is pure starch," Kaplan said. "The higher the starch-to-everything-else ratio you get, the more pure flavors you get, also more aromatic, floral, more fruit-forward."

Junmai are the least polished, ginjo offer a mid-range polish, and daiginjo are the most polished. There are a lot of other clarifications you can get into, but knowing these basics will help you order sake suited for your meal.

"Junmai are going to be more rustic, more umami-forward, richer. Ginjo are going to be a little more polished, more refined, more aromatic, and daiginjo are going to be more fruit-forward—really pure, really clean."

While that polish level is the key indicator of flavor, it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with quality. People often assume that daigijno sake is the best out there because it's pricier than other categories, and people are often wrong.

"By nature they're really expensive because you're starting off with half of the [rice] volume. There's the conception that daiginjo is the grand cru of sake," Kaplan said.

"There are some cases where it is really high-quality and it is often expensive, but it's not the end-all and be-all. You can have really really wonderful sakes that are only polished a small amount that are just as good in the right circumstances."

Sashimi goes great with something aromatic and floral like a daigijno sake.

A daiginjo may be magical with sashimi, but it won't necessarily hold up with izakaya food.

"Izakaya food tends to be a little heartier. It's not sushi. It tends to be lots of stuff off the Japanese charcoal grill, things that are fried, kind of more rustic," Kaplan said. "I think that that kind of food goes really well with certain kinds of sake that are more underrepresented."

Temperature is another area sake novices can find confusing.

"There's no right or wrong answer when it comes to temperature," Kaplan said. "Some people think you're only supposed to drink it hot, which is not true. There are people who have some knowledge who think you're never supposed to drink it hot, which also isn't true."

Your best bet is to look at a sake bottle's back label to see what's up. Each individual bottle is going to be different.

Junmai sake holds up well with smoky salami.

"We serve some cold, some room temperature, some slightly warm," Kaplan said. "I try to play with the temperatures to match the food as well."

If you're not sure what to get, or how to get it, just ask your server. The last thing you want to do at an izakaya is fuck up your drink order, because a good food and drink pairing is the whole point.

"Izakayas are all about drinking. They're all about what food tastes good with drinks," Kaplan said.