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- Thursday, 02 October 2014 01:45 | Written by Moemu C. Seo
When Rick Zouad had his first taste of Chef Daisuke Nakazawa’s sushi on opening night, his senses immediately assured him that he was at the right place. On 23 Commerce Street down by the West Village of New York City, you can now find him as the sommelier, pouring his beloved selections of sake and wine at Sushi Nakazawa.
Unlike its motherland in the Pacific east, Zouad says sake is a rarity back in his hometown of Mehdya, Morocco— but their culinary specialty in fresh fish can be given thanks to his later acquired Japanese palette. Having been in the United States for roughly twelve years, Zouad’s passion for sake has consistently taken him through a number of acclaimed Japanese restaurants in New York City: Oga, Lan (both shuttered), 15 East, and three Michelin star Masa. With Sushi Nakazawa most recently added to the list, Rick Zouad joins World Gourmet Society as we sit down and talk sake:
Take us through your current beverage program.
Zouad: We have over a hundred sakes. The place is small but we are trying to offer the very best of selections. I’m trying to focus on each prefecture in Japan and I’m also trying to support small breweries. In Japan, there has been a recent shock decrease of breweries in the sake industry. Its been monopolized by large companies which are in control of over 50% of the nation’s sake production. So, I’m trying to do my best to support every small brewery as much as possible. If I see that their sake works well with what we do here, I will pair it with our sushi.
Here, we have different options for our guests. They can do sake by the glass or by the bottle. We have a great selection of bottles. We have reserve bottles. Some of the bottles are only made available for us and cannot be found in other New York City restaurants. I’m always working to extend the list— to get more sake that are very hard to find, even in Japan. Of course, we do pairings as well for every course of sushi.
When it comes to the wine list, I’m more focused on wines with high minerality. For white wines: Great acidity that matches very well with the food. For the red wines: Something that doesn't have too much tannin. Something that’s not going to mask the flavors of the sushi.
It would seems as though most people know how to order wine or beer … how do you introduce sake to someone who is not entirely familiar with the beverage?
Zouad: Well first, I ask them to help me out by telling me what style of wine they enjoy. If they like something light for instance, a glass of Grüner Veltliner, I know they want something to the smoother side; slightly earthy but not overpowering. So, I take something comparable to the glass of wine. And usually if the guest is not sure, I offer them two different kinds and have them compare which one they like.
Have you ever been to Japan?
Zouad: No, but I’m planning to go very soon. I’m gonna go there and try to find sakes that are not available in the U.S. market. I’m really looking forward to it. I heard a lot of great things about Japan, especially when it comes to restaurants. In fact, Tokyo has the most Michelin star restaurants in the world and I heard the cuisine there is fantastic.
What exactly is a “Sake Samurai”?
Zouad: It all started due to the decrease in sake breweries in Japan. Breweries came up with an idea to find the right people who can promote sake and Japanese culture. By doing so, you are honored with recognition. However, you never know who they are and you have to be chosen by them.
There’s only a few people with the title of “Sake Samurai.” The most notable one in the United States I would say is Roger Dagorn. He is a Master Sommelier who first introduced premium sakes at Chanterelle. He took the lead and did wonderful sake pairings. And they didn’t even serve Japanese cuisine; it was all French. If anyone, I think he started the lead in the sake industry in the U.S.
Roger Dagorn …
Zouad: I can’t tell you how many people in the industry view him as a role model. He is one of the very few master sommeliers who still work for restaurants. Most master sommeliers end up working for big wineries or exporting companies but he chooses to stay in the service industry. I believe it’s a gift for people like us. I had the privilege to work with him at 15 East and I learned so much from Roger. I still learn from him to this day. Sometimes, I give him a call when I have a question. It’s a really small world in this restaurant industry.
What do you think makes a great sommelier?
Zouad: You have to be involved in the service. Being a sommelier doesn't mean you just have to take care of the beverage program. You are part of the service chain in the restaurant. You have to communicate very well with all the staff. You have to jump in and answer any questions. Most importantly, you have to have a very good palate. You have to have an advanced understanding of the wine program but you can never show off your knowledge to the guest. You are here to help and here to pair food with wine (or sake.)
Sommelier Rick Zouad’s Top 3 Selections by the Bottle:
1) Urakasumi Zen: “It’s a Junmai Ginjo classification— using the best sake rice, Yamada Nishiki. They use local sake rice from the Miyagi prefecture. It’s clean, very elegant, not over-powering. Very good with sushi and sashimi. It works well with some of the pieces we have here, especially our white fish and salmons. It’s one of the few sakes that get a lot of recognition in Japan. I always recommend this to my guests.”
2) Tsukasabotan Shizuku: “This is an opposite style compared to the Urakasumi. They use a ‘shizuku’ droplet method— that’s how the sake is filled. It’s a Junmai Daiginjo. This sake has more structure. Bolder. Bigger on the palate. Very high acidity. Has beautiful and elegant citrusy notes. Crisp. Herbaceous. It works well with anything the chef makes that is smoked or prepared with sea salt or truffle salt. This is probably the best selection for someone looking for a dry sake.”
3) Tedorigawa “Mangekyo”: “Very small production. Favorite sake. Discovered this sake when I was working at Lan in the East Village. Very consistent to this day. Aged sake for 3 years. Super smooth. Multiple layers of flavors. It has a lot of umami. Notes of tropical fruit. Not overpowering in any sense. Very smooth and elegant. If I had to compare it to a wine, I would compare it to a Montrachet type of White Burgundy wine. This sake is very hard to find. Most of the time, it’s sold out.”
23 Commerce Street New York, NY 10014
Price: $150 at the sushi bar, $120 in the dining room. $40 for 5 glass pairing, $80 for 7 glass pairing.
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 5 pm - 10 pm