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Sake 101

A sake sampler teaches an important lesson about the world of rice wine.
Monday Jan 14, 2008.     By Dana Kavan
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

photo: Clifton Henri; Ruby Wong tops of a sake sampler
Drink of the week: A Sake Sampler at Mizu Yakitori and Sushi Lounge, 315 W. North.

The damage: $10 for three tasting portions.

Thousands of bars in Chicago, why this one? Growing up in Nebraska, I never thought raw fish would make up my favorite meal, but these days, I almost always opt for sushi over any other cuisine. I had gone on a particularly heavy sushi binge over the holidays, though, and, in the interest of not overdosing on unagi, I needed some cooked meat to supplement my maki mono. Enter Mizu, a contemporary spot decked with vivid paintings and white orb lanterns. It has a fully stocked sushi bar as well as an open-air grill for yakitori, Japanese skewered street-food that sticks a spear through everything from teriyaki chicken to beef tongue to bacon-wrapped cherry tomatoes that explode in your mouth.

How it went down: Mizu has a decent selection of wines and martinis, but its drink list really shines with its sake offerings. The sampler's trio of mini cups came resting on a wood plank and a card describing the flavor profiles of each. Our waitress told us to begin with the driest, Masumi Okuden Kantsukuri, and work our way to the sweetest, Kamoizumi Kome Kome. Our first sip of the dry variety went down smoothly; it tasted sharp, a bit earthy and its nonexistent aftertaste made it highly drinkable. The middle-ground sake, Ginjo Dewazakura Dewasansan, sported noticeably sweeter undertones with hints of apple, though it remained smooth and refreshing. Then, we came upon our last variety, an almost too-sweet sake that resembled more of an aperitif than anything you'd want to order by the bottle. It reminded me of white grapefruit juice, with slightly less tartness, and we could only muster a few sips.

Surprised by the vast differences among the three, we looked to our server for more info on what sake's all about. Turns out, our least favorite was a specialty sake that went through increased milling to get rid of unwanted flavors from the fats and proteins in the rice (apparently, our palates relish these undesirable additives). It also used smaller slivers of rice than the dry version, which is milled for less time and uses large pellets. Our waitress even whipped out note cards with little packets of rice stapled to them to show us the different sizes of rice used in various sakes.

Would I want to become a regular? Getting schooled in sake 101 furthered our appreciation for the beverage, and gave us something to ponder while we dunked succulent slices of duck into the six spices and seasonings, ranging from sweet ponzu to sea salt, that accompanied the skewers. To wash down our Chicago maki, thick slices of yellowtail and tuna with avocado and cucumber, we ordered a carafe of our favorite from the sampler—having learned there's more than white wine in the world of sushi-friendly beverages.

Dana Kavan scours the city for drink deals so good you'll offer to buy a round and creative libations that outshine your average on-the-rocks concoctions. Want to give Dana tips on where to rack up a bar tab? Share your finds before her next night out.

 

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