Sake 101

Sushi chef and sake sommelier Engin Onural imparts his tips for great-tasting combinations



Engin Onural is chef and owner of The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge in Palm Desert.

Photo by Ethan Kaminsky

 

Many regulars who dine at The Venue Sushi Bar & Sake Lounge on El Paseo request omakase — which means your menu selections are left to the chef.

Patrons sit back and enjoy what’s about to come their way, secure in the knowledge that Engin Onural, the restaurant’s chef and owner, will serve them a masterful meal.

Onural is also a sake sommelier holding certification from the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance. “The world of sake is literally as extensive as wine,” he says. “There are many varieties of sake that you can enjoy.”

Onural’s first lesson is to avoid the hot stuff. “Personally, I don’t like drinking or serving hot sake,” he says. “It’s the lowest-quality sake you can get, and it’s heated up so all of the flavors are gone, and you are just tasting some sort of alcohol. That does not complement my food -— or any food.

One of the first steps in making sake is the polishing of the rice. “More polished rice equals better quality and better taste,” continues Onural, pointing out that daiginjo uses more of this rice. Higher-quality sake like this one is called dai.

Junmai sake has an earthier flavor profile, according to Onural, while ginjo is floral or fruity. “I always make a joke about tokubetsu [a special type of junmai sake]: I say ‘This is like your joker card,’ meaning it will pair with practically everything. It’s almost like you can’t go wrong with it.”

Onural calls honjozo and shochu the “vodkas” of sake. “They have a taste of alcohol and would be ideal for people who like a martini or a whiskey. Nigori is an unfiltered, creamy [variety of] sake.”

These various types of sake accentuate a wide array of dishes. For example, the Bosphorus roll —which is made with shrimp tempura, crab meat, and avocado — is a good match for the earthy junmai ginjo since it pairs well with the heavy, deep-fried nature of the tempura.

Onural recommends honjozo or shochu when enjoying a variety of fish. “I prefer something more neutral with a clean palate.”

Similarly, with a sashimi platter, you want the sublime taste of the fish to shine.

“The ginjo family will pair nicely with it,” says Onural. “Sashimi is very delicate and I don’t like it to be overpowered with earthy flavors.” Kampai!

The Venue Sushi Bar  & Sake Lounge, 73111 El Paseo, Suite 103, Palm Desert. 760-346-1500; www.thevenuepalmdesert.com

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