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O Ya's Nancy Cushman on Sake and Pepperoni Pizza

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Photo: Nancy Cushman/Rachel Leah Blumenthal

O Ya co-owner Nancy Cushman also serves as the intimate, immensely popular restaurant's sake sommelier. Which is to say that she knows a ton about sake. In fact, Cushman is one of fewer than 100 other English speakers to have reached the elite level of Advanced Sake Professional from the Sake Education Council in Japan. Recently, Cushman began leading "Sake 101" classes at O Ya, and she plans to continue the series with more in-depth courses focusing on specific aspects of sake knowledge and appreciation. Sake is not limited to pairings with Japanese food, says Cushman, who sometimes enjoys it with pepperoni pizza.

Quick sake vocab lesson: three types of premium sake served at O Ya include junmai, ginjo, and daiginjo, which are distinguished by their characteristics and by what percentage of the original rice grain is used in the brewing process.

What do you look for in a sake? Depends on the day, depends on my mood, depends on if I'm eating with it or just drinking a glass by itself. I haven't met a sake I didn't like. But overall? Balance, interesting flavor.

Is yours the top level of sake certification? Yes, it's the top English-speaking certification, I would say. The Sake Service Institute also offers some certification as well, but John Gauntner is the leading English-speaking sake expert in the world, and he is the one that developed the courses that I've been to for certification with the Sake Education Council of Japan. He's amazing.

What was one of the more challenging parts of the certification process? There's a blind tasting component of ten different key categories of sake. That was challenging, as well as the advanced level of the certification that gets way more in-depth into the actual details of the production process, so it becomes a bit more scientific. It's really great to have that knowledge, but at the end of the day it's a way to geek out on sake, and much of what was achieved in that course would not be something that I would ever actually talk to a guest about. We try to keep it more accessible.

What are some common misconceptions about sake? That it should be drunk as a sake bomb. [She laughs] No, I think the biggest misconception that I find is that for a long time people have really considered it to be something that tastes like rubbing alcohol, and not really complex, and I find that sake is incredibly complex. It's much more subtle that wine in many ways, and so it actually can be more challenging to the palate, as far as identifying different flavors and profiles. But once you taste that, if you really enjoy it, there's just such a breadth and a depth of flavors, and the history of these brewers - many of them go back to before the United States was actually a country. There's such a deep, deep history and tradition that's involved with it that I think gets lost when we just think about it as sake bombs.

What's the sake program program at O Ya like? We have about 45 different sakes on our list, and it's all premium sake from Japan. We also encourage our diners and our guests to experiment with sake, so a lot of our list is 300ml bottles, so they might enjoy a bottle and a second bottle, and we'll do two totally different flavor profiles or types of sake for them to just show a little bit more of the variety, because our tasting menus are 17-course minimum, usually. So we'll usually recommend something that can accompany the first number of courses, and then we'll move into a completely different profile for the mid-courses, and then another bottle perhaps for the end of the meal, if they get into more savory dishes. We also offer sake flights, so if somebody really wants to explore, we pick three quintessential glasses of sake: a daiginjo, a ginjo and a jumai, and then a nigori, an unfiltered sake.

Does sake show up in the cooking process as well? Yes. We actually use a ginjo sake, which is a premium sake, for our cooking, when it calls for sake. It's a little bit unheard of, but we definitely try to incorporate the best ingredients at all times.

You mentioned some non-Japanese sake pairings. What are some of your favorites? One of my absolute favorites is Shichi Hon Yari junmai with pepperoni pizza. It's absolutely amazing. And you know Tim [Cushman] is really into pizza - we're pizza fanatics, and that pairing is killer. The umami of the junmai sake and the umami of the cheese and the pepperoni as well; it's a huge ujmami bomb. There's definitely more delicate pairings. What's really good is to pair nigori, the unfiltered sake, with Thai food, because it has a nice cooling effect on spicy foods.

Where, besides O Ya, would you recommend that people go to experience sake? I would say Urban Grape. They can definitely help people find something that they might like. I helped them arrange the sake the same way that they arrange the wine in their store. Outside of Boston, Sakaya in New York has an amazing premium sake selection and True Sake in San Francisco I think was the first sake-only store in the United States, and they have a nice website with a lot of different descriptions of sake as well.

Tell me about the sake you serve that's made in an igloo. It is called Divine Droplets, or Takasago Ginga Shizuku, and it's from Hokkaido, so northern Japan, where there are very chilly temperatures. Another thing that's unique about it is that they use a natural press, call shizuku. After the sake ferments and is ready for pressing and going into bottling, they actually let it naturally drip, and so it's a very gentle process, and that shines through in what you drink. It almost tastes like snow. It's very beautifully pure and clean and delicate. The igloo itself is kept as two degrees Celsius and 90 percent humidity, and to keep the temperature so steady and so cool really allows the fermentation process to be very controlled and for them to end up with a very delicate product at the end.

In a blind taste test, could you pick out a sake made in an igloo from one that wasn't? Probably not, but I would be able to identify characteristics. It would be perhaps more delicate versus a little bit rougher.

Can you address the hot sake controversy? So hot sake is generally the way people get introduced to sake, which is essentially the house sake at a restaurant or sushi bar. It's kind of the Budweiser of sake in a lot of cases. That said, that was the first exposure that I had to sake and I still loved it. So I'm not pooh-poohing hot sake: it is what it is.

Now I feel like people are getting much more exposure to the premium sake, in which they mill the rice down to certain percentage to coax different flavors and aromas out of it. So if you were to heat those up and serve that hot, it would actually crush all of the delicate things that you just tried to bring out of the sake. It's the equivalent of heating up a glass of wine. That said, there are a number of premium sakes that are best served slightly warm or warm, so it really depends on the quality of the sake and how the brewer intends it to be consumed in the end. And they're getting better about putting recommended serving temperatures on the bottle as well. But the majority of the premium sake - the ginjo and daiginjo category - are best served chilled like a white wine, so that you can enjoy those nuances.

Do you get many hot sake requests at O Ya? We do. And we have a few different junmai sakes on our list that can be enjoyed chilled or warm, equally. The requests for warm go up a little bit in the winter months, as you can imagine, but generally we serve cold.

Will there ever be an O Ya sake bomb? Not intentionally. I'm not a sake snob in any way - I'm a sake geek - I like to sip it like a fine wine or whiskey, and to me, the sake bomb goes by too fast and it gets buried in the beer. If you're going to do that, just drink the beer.

The next available sake class at O Ya is on November 17. For more information, see here.

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