Tsubaki Pours the Most Interesting Sake in L.A.
Courtney Kaplan curates a sake list unlike any other in the city.
There's a crazy story about the creation of Kimurashiki Kiseki No Osake, a junmai ginjo sake also known as Miracle Sake.
The origin story sounds apocryphal. It's the kind of legend that's probably been embellished or distorted from telling to telling. Courtney Kaplan, a sake expert who serves Kimurashiki at L.A. izakaya Tsubaki, heard the tale from an importer.
"I've done a little digging," Kaplan says. "I don't know if it's true or not, but it's a good story."
It turns out that the story, or at least some version of it, is true. The story involves a Japanese farmer, Akinori Kimura, who had become increasingly distraught over the unceasing deterioration of an apple orchard. Kimura decided to end his misery by hanging himself. He hiked up a mountain with a rope. And then he saw a tree. Something about being in the middle of nature by himself resulted in a revelation.
Kimura didn't commit suicide. Instead, he came up with his own method of biodynamic farming that eventually led to a new kind of sake in the Okayama prefecture. (If you want to read much more about Kimura's story, there's a 24-chapter Japanese book, Miracle Apples, that Yoko Ono published online after having it translated to English.)
Kimurashiki is one of the dozens of sakes you can try at Tsubaki, the Echo Park restaurant that Kaplan and chef Charles Namba opened in February. Kaplan, who lived in Japan as a college student and is fluent in Japanese, changes the sake list every single day. There are about 25 sakes on the menu each evening, and she's also ready to pour off-menu selections if guests want to expand their journey.
As you might have guessed, Kaplan likes sakes with a story. She also likes sakes that are created with atypical methods. She can talk to you at length about craft sake and also about how some sakes are best when they're consumed at room temperature. She can explain organic and biodynamic processes. She loves how sake is seasonal. Autumn sakes are meant to go with mushrooms and fatty fish like mackerel. "Bright and fresh" spring sakes pair well with green vegetables.
But above all, Tsubaki is a relaxed place to drink that just happens to have the city's most eclectic sake collection. There's no reason to be intimidated if you're not that familiar with sake.
"For me, it's just about making it really accessible and easy," says Kaplan, who previously worked as a sommelier at L.A.'s Bestia and poured sake at New York's Decibel and En Japanese Brasserie. "I try to put a description [of each sake] that's not super serious on the list."
Kimurashiki, for example, is described as "biodynamic, aromatic, tropical, fresh, clean." Like a lot of what Tsubaki pours, it's a sake that harmonizes nicely with food.
Other special sakes Kaplan has include Amanoto, which translates to Heaven's Door. It's a tokubetsu junmai nama made only with rice, water and labor from the Akita prefecture. Sake isn't often a hyper-local endeavor, so Amanoto is a rare find.
"Usually with sake, you don't have to use rice from anywhere near you," Kaplan says. "You might have a contract with a farmer across the country where you get the best rice."
Another thing that makes Amanoto stand out is that it's unpasteurized. Pasteurizing tends to mellow out sake, which is what a lot of purists want. But if you like to drink high-acid wines or "want something big and vibrant," you might prefer unpasteurized sake.
"When you don't pasteurize, you get a lot of different things going on," Kaplan says. "More angles, more vibrant aromatics, more technicolor stuff."
After pouring me a little Amanoto, Kaplan offers me some pasteurized Sougen junmai from Ishikawa. The contrast is significant.
"This is kind of a classic," Kaplan says of Sougen. "It's this really beautiful, creamy, rich texture. It's very rice-y, more savory, not as aromatic. This is round, lush, no sharp corners. This is the kind of sake I give to people if they say they want something kind of neutral. They don't want something fruity. They don't necessarily want something super dry. It's just very balanced and has this finesse to it."
Then Kaplan pours me some Tamagawa "Red Label" heirloom yamahai genshu, one of the off-menu selections. It's an unfiltered, undiluted and strikingly robust sake from British-born Philip Harper, the only non-Japanese toji (master brewer) in Japan. If you're into natural wines, this might be the sake for you.
"One of the great things about working with sake in a restaurant is that most people don't know what they like," Kaplan says. "When you're working with wine, people come in with a lot of preconceived notions. With sake, they have no idea, so I can put delicious things in front of them. It gives us a lot more freedom to play around with it. Because once you get past people's intimidation, it's like you can show them anything."
And you can tell them a crazy story while you're at it.