We dutifully order sake at Japanese restaurants, but we order it generically, as if there were just one giant sake bottle in the world.
The so-called rice wine is more accurately a still beer made from the fermented grain, and it can be traced back nearly 1,500 years. It's a mildly herb-flavored beverage, with a wide range, from sweet to dry, with varying degrees of fruitiness, that goes particularly well with seafood. Though we're accustomed to sipping it warm, sake--at least the good stuff--is better sampled chilled.
Japan is home to more than 2,000 sake companies; about 100 drinks are available in the United States, more every day it seems. The key factor in quality, beyond the water, is how much of the rice grain is used. The better sakes use highly polished grains, in which as much as 50% of the rice has been buffed away. These bottles can cost $200 and more.
At Sai Sai in the Regal Biltmore Hotel, General Manager Suki Yanagi is proud of his sake list, which features more than 20 bottles, including Hakushika Sake, the Golden, Colo., offshoot of a Japanese manufacturer that dates back to 1662. Choose your own sakazuki (sake cup) from the tray a waitress brings to the table; pour from the tokkuri (flask) and toast (kanpai) before you sip.
Best known as one of the most expensive restaurants in town, Ginza Sushiko may also have the finest sake collection. Owner and sushi chef Masa Takayama stocks 10 bottles, which range from $15 to $50 per serving. The sakes he pours, Takayama explains, use only the middle of the rice grain and are aged three years. Cold sake, he says, is best with sushi and very good with cold fish.
Sakes have branched out beyond Asian places. At Gadsbys, chef-owner Robert Gadsby has half a dozen sakes ($7 to $12) on the wine list, five of which are meant to be served cold.
For a good introduction to a premium cold sake, try Oni Koroshi (Killing the Devil), one of the dozen-plus bottles at Kyoto at the Omni Hotel downtown, where they pour this strikingly smooth, semisweet Japanese import from tall bamboo flasks into squat bamboo cups.