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Not too hot, not too cold, sake's best served just right

IN SEASON: Sake
by: JIM CLARK, SakéOne in Forest Grove labels its sake under the bejeweled names of Momokawa and fruit flavors of its Moonstone brand.

Sake is on the rise. In cities across America, people are drinking more sake, and educating themselves about the subtleties of premium sakes. The next few weeks bring a flurry of opportunities for Portlanders to get in on the trend.

This Monday, April 16, In Good Taste cooking school plays host to David Padberg, the chef de cuisine at Park Kitchen. Padberg will prepare and serve a multicourse Japanese meal, paired with a series of sakes.

The following Saturday, April 21, the Heathman offers a special dinner pairing French cuisine with sakes from SakéOne, Oregon's own sake brewery in Forest Grove. And a full-service sake house called Zilla Sake is slated to open in May on Northeast Alberta Street.

The market for sake is growing at such a rapid clip that Young's-Columbia, Oregon's largest distributor of beer and wine, recently brought a sake specialist on staff.

For just under a year, Marcus Pakiser has been promoting and selling sake in Oregon. 'It's going extremely well,' he says. The sake market 'is not exactly a niche. It's really a huge, growing market in the United States.'

Pakiser worked as a sake brewer in Colorado, training under a Japanese sake maker there, and receiving further training in trips to Japan. Although we tend to treat sake like a wine, the fermenting process is really more like making beer, he says.

Like beer, sake starts with a grain - rice. The rice is polished in a tumbler, the grains rubbing against one another and grinding off their outer husks, which contain lipids, proteins and fats.

'The more you polish the rice, the higher quality of sake you can make,' Pakiser explains.

The starchy inner kernels of rice are washed, steeped and steamed. Sake has only three other ingredients: water, yeast and koji. Koji is a rice mold. It transforms the starch in the rice into glucose, and the yeast eats the glucose, turning it into alcohol.

A multistage process ferments and then purifies the liquid, which is aged for three to 10 months and then bottled.

Most sake is, of course, made in Japan. Oregon's SakéOne brewery (which releases sake under the Momokawa and Moonstone labels) is an exception, and is very well-regarded. 'The best sake made in America is made out in Forest Grove,' Pakiser says.

It goes with more than sushi

SakéOne has done a lot to raise sake's profile locally, but across the country sake imports are way up. 'It's going way beyond Japanese restaurants now,' Pakiser says.

Seasonal foods of spring are a great match for sake, In Good Taste's Josie Ross says. She helps organize the school's guest chef nights, which are a combination of a cooking class and dinner at a high-end restaurant. A small group of student/diners watch the chef prepare food, ask questions and eat the results.

Ross' background is as a chef. Before moving to Portland a month ago, she cooked in Las Vegas, where she noticed sake becoming more and more popular.

Over the past four years, she says, Las Vegas' big-name, high-end restaurants began adding sake lists to their already-voluminous wine offerings. This was happening not only in Asian and fusion-style restaurants, she says, but in the more formal, traditional spots as well.

Jeff Groh, the sommelier at the Heathman, has noticed the same trend in New York and San Francisco. A wide range of food lovers are finding that sake can pair with foods outside of Japanese cuisine.

In conjunction with SakéOne and Heathman chef Philippe Boulot, Groh has put together a menu that pairs different sakes with French dishes, including crispy sweetbreads and grilled duck breast.

Sake's sensitive, so be nice

Premium sake has the complexity to be enjoyed like wine, Groh says. Just don't drink it hot, he advises: 'Put it in a nice glass, and really appreciate the flavor and the aroma.'

Pakiser agrees: 'Premium sakes are generally served at room temperature or slightly below room temperature, just slightly chilled,' he says. He adds, 'Drier, earthy sakes can be served slightly warm but not coffee-hot - you really never want to do that.'

The experts say that too much heat, like too much chill, kills the flavor.

Sake is very sensitive to light and heat says Allison Lowe, who will open Zilla Sake with partner Blaine Cline in early May. The spot will offer 30 to 40 sakes, carefully stored, both for tasting in house and to carry away.

Zilla is modeled after a wine bar rather than a restaurant, with sake as the main draw, complemented by 'Japanese tapas' such as skewered meat and fish, grilled eggplant and baby bok choy (no sushi).

'The interest in sake is exploding,' Lowe says. She loves its clean, simple composition, and the human, hands-on care that goes into traditional sake brewing.

'I think of it as alchemical,' she says. 'It changes … when you open a bottle, your first cup is going to taste very different than your last cup, because of the way the air hits it, the time and the temperature. … There's all these wonderful, magical subtleties that can come out of it.'

The name Zilla Sake is a playful reference to Godzilla, a sign, Lowe says, that 'we're not taking ourselves too seriously here.'

Godzilla, she says, represents a crossroads between Japanese and American culture - as does sake, which is invading America with a somewhat lighter tread.

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Kaiseki Japanese dinner with David Padberg

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 16

Where: In Good Taste, 231 N.W. 11th Ave., 503-248-2015

Cost: $90, reservation required

Classic French dinner with Oregon sake

When: 6 p.m. Saturday, April 21

Where: Heathman Restaurant, 1001 S.W. Broadway, 503-790-7752

Cost: $68, reservation required

Zilla Sake (opens May 9)

1806 N.E. Alberta St.

503-336-4104.

SakéOne

Open for tours and special events.

See www.sakeone.com or call 1-800-550-7253 ext. 233 for details.