We Are Very, Very Ready for Mutsuko Soma's New Seattle Sake Bar
“Kamonegi introduced Seattle to small piece of Japanese culture,” says chef Mutsuko Soma of her acclaimed Seattle soba restaurant. But when a second space opened up in the Fremont building where she rolls out the buckwheat noodles each day, she decided to teach the city about another aspect of Japanese culture: sake drinking.
The tiny space that will be Hannyatou, which opens on May 7, isn’t big enough for a restaurant—there are only 20 seats, total, inside: seven at the bar and 13 at tables—so Soma modeled it after Japanese liquor stores, specifically those from the Edo period. The term “izakaya,” which is widely used in the U.S. to describes Japanese small plates restaurants, she explains, actually comes from these liquor stores that opened beginning in the eighteenth century. In addition to selling sake, customers were invited to “stay for a drink,” the literal meaning of izakaya.
Hannyatou will offer about 20 different sakes, by the glass, in flights, and by the bottle (which, since Washington State law classifies it as a wine, you can take home if you don’t finish). But because sake is so food-friendly, and because Soma now has a large back patio to use for fermenting projects (and which doubles the seating on nice days), there will also be a short menu of fermentation-focused foods.
She’s been making natto (fermented soy beans) in-house at Kamonegi, but the extra room will allow her to start making a variety of vinegars, her own miso and tofu, pickled vegetables, and more. The menu will include oysters, miso-marinated pork, and even an ice cream made from sake kasu. Better known for its use in seafood marinades, the kasu is the lees, or solids leftover, from sake production, and Hannyatou will bring it in fresh and unpasteurized (so that it breaks down foods when used in marinades or pickling) from local producer Tahoma Fuji. Having food with sake is important, Soma explains, because the umami flavor in sake is “unlocked by salt.”
But you don’t need to come in knowing anything about sake: Soma and her partner in Hannyatou, Russell King, are ready to help educate customers about the drink. King was a regular customer of Soma’s when she was the chef at Miyabi 45th, prior to opening her own restaurant, and started helping with events at Kamonegi. In March, he left his job at Microsoft after 26 years to work full time at Hannyatou. Thought he hasn’t worked in sake in the U.S., he’s spent significant time apprenticing with producers in Japan over the last six years and holds a WSET level three in sake. (Soma holds the level three in wine and hopes to have it in sake shortly, but she is certified by the Sake Sommelier Institute.)
“Sake is so simple,” says King, noting that the concoction of rice, water, koji, and yeast is vegan and gluten-free. But yet, it ends up in so many different forms and taking so many flavors. Through flights, the pair can demonstrate the spectrum from mizumoto, the original style of sake, with its unadutered funkiness, to the richer, slightly more refined yamahai, and onto the current trend toward ultra-floral yeast of junmai daiginjo.
While drinkers might be familiar with cedar sake cups called masu, those were actually originally the measurement standard for purchasing sake. For the best educational experience, Hannyatou also has wide tasting cups that allow for better smelling, decorated with concentric blue circles on the bottom of the inside to help tasters eyeball the color and clarity.
But if you’re not ready to study yet, Soma and King have fun bottles ready to get people excited about sake. Soma suggests starting with the slightly effervescent, faintly sweet, and extremely easy-to-drink Kaze no Mori, while King hopes to bust through any preconceived notions about the drink with the almost yogurt-like funk of the Kamoizumi Komekome-shu.
Besides sake, the bar will serve only Japanese craft beer and one bottle of sparkling wine. King’s hope is that by restricting the offerings, they’ll hone their ability to find each customer the exact right sake as they encourage them to learn more about the drink—which very much befits Hannyatou’s name. When sake came to Japan from China, King explains, it came as part of funeral rites, so it was made by Buddhist monks. But because of their restrictions, the monks couldn’t drink the fruits of their labor. They got around that by renaming the sake. They weren’t drinking alcohol, they were drinking hannyatou: “wisdom water.”
Hannyatou, 1060 N 39th Street, Seattle.