In 1993-94 I would come into New York to work for free every day at a business in the Tribeca Film Center. These were the days when all of Tribeca smelled like roasted peanuts two or three days a week because Bazzini was a peanut roaster, not a gourmet store and condo complex. The Tribeca Grill was there and getting some attention, but the best meal and the best room were pretty much accepted as being at Chanterelle which had already been there for like ten years.
Needless to say, with my budding young food obsessions I always wanted to eat in the subtle, classy room I saw through the white curtains walking to and from the errands interns are sent on. I was assured by those who could and did go that the husband and wife team behind Chanterelle, David and Karen Waltuck, were not only drawing seasoned vets of the greater West side of the triangle below Canal but that people from as far as the Upper East Side were coming down for the food, which they explained as significant to the kid still commuting from Jersey City.
I finally did have a meal at Chanterelle at some point and remember little more than awe, making this opportunity to get back there much appreciated. What hasn’t changed is that the room is still best described as tasteful, and Karen Waltuck still cheerily makes you feel at home in the front of the house while David does the cooking. What is either new or I wasn’t food fluent enough to take notice of back then is the presence of sake.
Sake is something I wish I knew more about. I have learned the fundamentals along the way – sake is brewed and is rice-based; the rice for sake is polished prior to brewing; and the more starch that is removed in the process, the more the resulting brew becomes subtle and nuanced. The levels of starch removal I have learned, in order of least to most, are Jumnmai-shu, Ginjo-shu, and Daiginjo-shu. I am aware that there are unfiltered varieties (when I have had them I seem to prefer unfiltered) and brews made from different types of rice. There are sweet sakes and dry ones, and no good sake is consumed hot. I know that with the average Japanese meal in New York I seem to prefer Ginjo sake. But that’s the extent of my knowledge at this point (mostly learned at Decibel around the same time I was working in The Tribeca Film Center).
Learning food and wine always requires learning a new language, even if it is just the words in English that pertain to the particular process. The thing about sake is it requires you to learn a new alphabet. This combined with the fact that most of the restaurants in New York with a good collection of sake and a knowledgeable sake-geek have loud, uncomfortable bars that specialize in mixology and not always food means there has been little opportunity for me to go beyond a beginner’s level of knowledge.
Most of the learning I do about booze happens at a comfortable bar with a genial and knowledgeable professional pouring and teaching. The good news is Chanterelle definitely has the guy to fit the bill in the personage of Roger Dagorn, though sadly Chanterelle is a bar-less restaurant. As I understand it it was Roger’s passion for sake that brought the brewers of these samplings to Chanterelle for this dinner and somewhere between him and Chef Waltuck this menu was planned. Here is how it went:
Amuses Bouches: a fried oyster resting on diced cucumber topped with salmon roe and a pinwheel of prosciutto and fig, paired with Ohyama Tokubetsu Janmai ‘Nigori’(an unfiltered and unpasteurized sake that looked and tasted somewhat milky with floral notes of lilac). The sake was quite light in comparison to the crust of the oyster and the sweetness of the figs.
Chesapeake Bay Crabmeat “Ravioli” with Golden Beets, Avocado & Almond Oil: sweet crabmeat sandwiched between thin crunchy slices of golden beet, served with bibb lettuce and avocado, paired with Ichinokura Junmai ‘Himezen’ which involved aromas of orange blossoms, strawberries and pear nectar while tasting like the white (pineapple) Haribo Gold gummy bears. The pairing ended up a study in the lighter aspects of sweetness – the beets, the crab, and the sake itself – with the avocado offering weight to draw out each component’s individuality along the sweet spectrum.
Beef Carpaccio with Marinated Mushrooms: thinly shaved beef laid on a plate and ringed with brilliantly peppery arugula drizzled with a sweet miso dressing was served alongside Ohyama Junmai Ginjo ‘Ginsuika’ which had a saline and bitter vegetal palate and aromas of raw pine-nuts and toasted nori. In my mind the reason to learn about sake is that the wine world does not necessarily cover all vegetables and fishes, so it was interesting to see it paired here with beef. The miso definitely lent a familiarity of palate between the French and Japanese but beyond that the sharper notes of the sake were enveloped in the beef.
Ragout of Chanterelles with Fried Quail Eggs: pan-roasted chanterelles in a brown jus with a sunny-side-up quail’s egg, matching Otokoyama Junmai Daiginjo, with rosehips and white pepper on the nose and a boozy palate of jicama. The dish was salty, earthy and rich and the sake acted as another ingredient, adding roses to the earthiness and pepper to the salt while thinning the yolk’s lavishness.
Grilled Arctic Char with Grapefruit Butter: a grilled fillet of char on cabbage slaw with snap peas, orange zest and grapefruit butter, served along with Tsukasabotan Junmai Ginjo ‘Nama’ Sake which possessed a lactic richness and plum and balsa wood scents. Probably the finest pairing of the night, these were just in perfect accord. Like the greatest of wines, I find finer sake becomes more a familiar myriad of flavors without any one exact discernable unique note. This was the first sake of the night to smell and taste primarily like good sake, the fish’s skin had an awesome wood-grilled flavor to its grill marks that was almost plasticy, like a fugu tail but more subtle. Although maybe not the sake or course of the evening, this was definitely the pairing.
Spiced New Zealand Snapper on Vegetables Escabeche: a fillet of the fish with its skin seared crisp rested atop pickled vegetables and a similarly seared cauliflower floret and was served with Wakatake ‘Onikoroshi’ Junmai Daiginjo. The best word I have to describe this sake is pleasant; it conjured the image of sweet water as I have heard the term used to describe potable water in an unknown land, with a wispy aroma of perfume on the breeze. The dish, which I enjoyed, is remembered simply as nice which it was, it just didn’t speak to me like the drink did in this pairing.
Fricassee of Lobster with Lemongrass and Lime Leaves: lobster meat in a small cast-iron pot with a buttery sauce and citrus aromas was served alongside Tsukasabotan Junmai Daiginjo ‘Shizuku’ with a driving heat of alcohol behind its eucalyptus notes and an aroma of sweet flowers. I understand the motivation to serve this dish this way, but the result sadly was chewy lobster tail. The claws, however, went well and the butteriness of the sauce tempered the sake’s boozy heat.
Seared Duck Breast with Sweet Ginger Sauce: simply roasted duck breast with bok choi, chiffonade of scallions, and a chewy beggar’s purse resting on silver leaf was served with Kaika Junmai Daiginjo ‘Tobindori’ Shizuku with an herbal anise nose and a salty palate. This was the only mis-pairing of the night: as much sense as it made in theory, the scallions pulled an unpleasant acerbicness out of the sake making the great thought an unpleasant match.
Roasted Pears with Fresh Ricotta Crème and Honey Citrus Caramel Sauce: sweet more from roasted sugars than added sugars, it went along with Otokoyama Junmai Genshu ‘Fukkoshu’ Sweet Sake which smelled of banana bread, dried fruits, toasted fish skin and yeast, and was all pear juice on the palate. With this one we learned that most sakes are cut with water to bring their alcohol down. While this one wasn’t, due to its sweetness it was not as noticeably boozy as a couple of its predecessors.
In a perfect world, Chanterelle would have a bar I could wander into during the quieter before/after service hours and drink sake by the glass, trying to suck as much of Roger’s expertise from his brain as possible. That not being an option, I think this dinner was an acceptable substitute. During each course Roger stopped by our tables, often to introduce the person responsible for brewing the accompanying sake. He explained what made each sake unique, as well as his thoughts behind the pairing, and was very available for question answering.
As I understand it this was the seventh or eighth of these sake-centric dinners which are held annually at Chanterelle and a perfect night, as I learned a thing or two about sake and its process and enjoyed some inspired pairings. Until the Waltucks see their way clear to adding a bar, I can’t imagine a better venue for experiencing fine sake and fine food. Great food and great drink should not be separate, and need not be. These are well crafted drinks that paired well with well-crafted food, and in the crossing of traditionally staid lines I got to come to a better appreciation of both.
At this point Chanterelle is an august place doing an excellent job oft overlooked by me for the newer kids on the block. I was very glad to have this opportunity to be reminded of the brilliance that exists in the composed, sure confidence of a place that has proven itself and continues to by taking advantage of its position to explore things as unique as the pairing of pretty traditional French fare and the finest of Japanese sakes.