There’s never been a better time for sake, with major labels competing on flavour and high-class hotels and restaurants alike putting daiginjō on the menu paired with traditional dishes.
13 varieties of sake are available at the bar, including the famous Migaki 23, made from Yamada Nishiki rice milled to 23%, and the nigori Migaki 39 Sparkling. One wall is entirely taken up by a row of fridges keeping the sake in optimal condition. A glass of namazake will set you back 8 euro.
Kaoru Iida, Asahi Shuzō’s representative in Europe, comments that Japanese food is trendy in Paris and more and more people have tried sake. However, poor storage and handling means they may not like what they get and associate all sake with what Iida sees as spoilt produce. Sake is sensitive to light and heat, especially unpasteurised namazake.
The house sommelier notes that most customers are local, and that the Migaki 23 goes particularly well with oysters, foie gras or chocolate. They also offer new flavours like cocktails with yuzu liqueur.
The restaurant has a menu designed by Joël Robuchon to match Dassai sake, with a mix of Japanese dishes such as sushi and sashimi and French classics like beef tartare and lamb stew. Robuchon first visited Japan in 1970 and has opened a number of French restaurants there. He was enamoured enough with Japan to open a Japanese restaurant in a high-class hotel in Monaco in 2009, fell in love with Dassai and approached them about opening a restaurant together.
Sake in Paris is not limited to Japanese restaurants. The venerable Ritz offers it in its bar and restaurant, as does the hotel Le Meurice and the Shangri-La. It’s become standard on the menus of fine hotels. JETRO reports that exports to France are worth about JPY 2700,00,000, tripling over the last five years.
Did the French suddenly fall for sake? No, says Mitsui. The change comes from French cuisine. The trend among the wealthy is to stay slim and in good health, so top restaurants are abandoning heavy sauces and competing to find the best fat-free ingredients. Plates are filled with lightly cooked fresh fish with organic vegetables, not a million miles away from Japan’s famous kaiseiki cooking. Desserts are still on the menu, but not too sweet. So the underlying cause is a style of French cooking that suits sake coming into fashion.
Xavier Thuizat, organiser of the French Kura Master sake competition, says that more and more French chefs are turning to ingredients like yuzu or soy sauce, which naturally go with sake. The tasting event held after the Kura Master competition attracted many sake fans in or around their 30s. One said the nigori and sparkling sake were her favourites, fruity and great as a before-dinner drink. She had tried sake at Japanese restaurants before, but what she tasted here was nothing like what they served.
Mitsui notes that younger generations in France are less tied to traditional ideas about food, and eager to try new things. In a sense sake has arrived at just the right time, as culinary horizons are growing wider. French menus have long paired raw oysters with white wine, but Thuizat points out that shellfish has a strong taste of iodine, which can conflict with a white wine with lots of minerality. However, there is no such clash with sake, which tends to envelop and blend flavours.
But what next? Will sake be another craze that comes and goes? To stop that happening, Mitsui insists, it has to resist being treated as a single thing, as a commodity – which it can do by showing its multifaceted nature through competition between regions and labels.