Five Questions

Manager Q & A: Kyle Lovell

A chat about sips and snacks with the brains behind the sake list at Northeast Portland’s Yakuza.

By Anna Sachse November 29, 2010


In a state with a near rabid obsession for its own bold pinot noir, bracing IPA, and hip boutique booze, a nuanced and non-homegrown beverage like sake doesn’t get a whole lot of attention.

Unless you’re Kyle Lovell, the general manager at Yakuza, Micah Camden and Dayna McErlean’s pretty Japanese cuisine-inspired pub (or izakaya) named for the Japanese mafia. Lovell’s love affair with the fragrant and versatile rice wine known as sake began in Vermont when she got her first job at a Japanese restaurant, but it truly blossomed after she arrived in Oregon thanks to an opportunity to take a much-coveted class, Yakuza, and Marcus Pakiser, the sake rep for Young’s Columbia. “He’s really dedicated to increasing awareness of sake out in the world, while at the same time suiting the individual needs of each restaurant,” Lovell says.

Here, Lovell explains the why’s and how’s of the ways in which sake can suit the individual needs of you.

1) Can you give us a crash course in what might make one sake different than another?

In the world of filtered sake there are different levels of refined rice that are used for brewing. A low percentage on a bottle, like 25-percent, means the rice has been milled down to a small portion of its original size. This will likely lead to a delicate sake. A higher percentage means more of the original grain was used, which often leads to a bold sake. However, the most glaring difference that you can visibly see is between Sake and Nigori Sake. Nigori is cloudy and has a thicker texture, but it is roughly-filtered rather than unfiltered like most people might assume.

2) What was the thinking behind how you built the Yakuza sake list?

I was fortunate enough to take a class with John Gauntner, an English-speaking sake “guru,” of which there are only two in the world. His Professional Sake Course teaches you about sake from the ground up. He really opened my eyes to the dynamics and allowed me to see where there were gaps in the Yakuza list. There are many different palates and several of our sakes taste completely different when paired with food. My goal was to have a taste variety that would include something for everyone, while at the same time offering a price range that made sake accessible to everyone.

3) Can you name three awesome food/sake pairings?

One: Our Salmon Tataki and the Seikyo “Mirror of Truth,” a great sipping sake that vastly changes when paired with food. The salmon has a seared edge with togarashi, a Japanese red pepper flake seasoning that allows the Seikyo to bounce off the spice and really open up its flavor.

Two: Our Yakuza Burger and Yuho. Most people wouldn’t think to drink sake with something as American as a burger, but this is a great example of how a meat-and-cheese dish can pair with sake and really elevate the palate. Yuho has an amazing robustness that brings out the flavor of the chèvre.

Three: Our Sashimi Trio and Wateri Bune 55. This combo is on my list of favorites not only because the citrus undertones in the Wateri Bune balance perfectly with the Thai chili spice on the Sashimi Trio, but because I have had some truly great experiences introducing customers to sake thanks to the Wateri Bune. It’s a great way to demonstrate how approachable and enjoyable sake can be for everyone.

4) What are a couple sake cocktails that make for easy drinkin’?

With a much lower alcohol content than liquor, sake both makes a great base for cocktails and mixes well with other, stronger types of alcohol. At Yakuza, one of our specialty drinks includes Nigori Sake, vodka, muddled cucumber, fresh lemon and lime, and a dash of simple syrup. The second would be a combo of Junmai Gingo, gin, marionberry, honey, lemon, and lavender.

5) If you could share a bottle of the finest sake with any celebrity in the world, who would it be and why?

I could go the selfless route and choose a high profile person with a lot of influence so that more people would recognize sake and be willing to give it a try—in my opinion, sake is as crucial to the knowledgeable drinker’s experience as wine. But I think I am going to have to choose Stevie Wonder because maybe we would have a grand old time and he would sing a couple songs to me. Maybe he would even slide over to the piano and write a song about me. That would be great.

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