We’re all about trying unique experiences throughout Atlanta and Georgia, so this sake tasting was right up my alley. It wasn’t until I attended a sake tasting with an official Kikisake-shi (sake sommelier) at Yakitori Jinbei that I realized the sake breweries are going out of business at an alarming rate. I also didn’t know there was such a thing as a Kikisake-shi who could pair foods with different sakes. That’s what I love about the cultural diversity of Atlanta. You can go to a Japanese restaurant in Smyrna, get a history lesson on sake hosted by a sake sommelier, and enjoy a Japanese-fusion paired menu of deliciousness by a chef who went from being an optometrist to a culinary expert. Let’s talk about it.
Yakitori Jinbei- A Restaurant Created by an Optometrist
I know what you’re thinking, how did an optometrist open a Japanese restaurant? Culinary Dr. Jae Choi had a fascinating story that would make for one of those interesting Netflix food documentaries. Like many children, his educational background and subsequential occupation were heavily influenced by his parents.
He really wanted to go to culinary school, but his parents obviously didn’t see that as a real career path so he went on to become an Optometrist with a few practices. As fate would have it, that wasn’t his true path, so he finally decided to follow his dreams and study the culinary arts. As a man who loves food, he took a special interest in combining traditional Japanese food with a hint of other cultures. This marriage of tastes is what you can expect when you visit Yakitori Jinbei, a hole in the wall restaurant located in Smyrna, and try their summer menu.
Before I talk about the delicious sake and food pairings, I want to tell you what is so special about an event like this. We’re all constantly talking about “doing it for the culture” and that’s literally why you should support and host sake tasting events, even more so than you do for wine, and here’s why. The traditional practices of making Seishu, the legal name of sake, is in a state of decline thanks to the popularity of craft beer and spirits. So much so that older saki breweries are folding left and right. What makes this sad is that sake making is a longstanding Japanese cultural tradition stemming back to 710 after the discovery of koji.
Sake Making in 5 Steps
I’m not a historian or a sake expert, but our sake expert did explain to us that the process of making saki involves a lot of water, rice, and koji. Since rice is a starch it doesn’t ferment as you need it to in order to make alcohol.
Milled rice cannot be germinated since it’s just starch so, in order to make that delicious sake, breweries have to follow several steps:
- Stone mill the grain
- Wash it about 10 times to make it clear- this is the most water needed in the sake making process
- Steam the rice
- Transfer the rice to a koji chamber where they speckle the fungus Aspergillus oryzae, or as we know it, koji, over the rice for about 2 days to convert it to sugar
- That sugar is used to make sake
Rice at Different Milling Rates
Sake Tastings & a 5-Course Meal
I’m not talking about having sake bombs at Ru Sans. No, this was a real sake tasting event with a Kikisake-shi (sake sommelier), Maxwell Leer, from New York Mutual Trading, Inc., a company that has been bringing Japanese culture to the world since 1926. If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting event, then you’ll know what to expect with a sake tasting event. The Kikisake-shi curates a sake tasting experience and works with the chef to pair complimentary foods for the sake.
Sake Tasting at Yakitori Jinbei
This sake tasting event was the first of its kind for the restaurant, and I hope they have more as the months go on, because it was so much fun.
1st Course- A Fiesta in Your Mouth
Our first course was the Junmai-sake paired with the fiesta roll. Something interesting about this pairing is the fun take on a sushi roll that Culinary Dr. Jae Choi took thanks to him being inspired by his Mexican kitchen staff. This Junmai was a full-expression sake as it has no additives which was great because there was so much flavor already packed into that spicy fiesta roll. In case you’re wondering, the sushi roll contained avocado, cucumber, jalapeño, cream cheese, guacamole, with a cilantro lime aioli and sweet Korean sauce drizzled on top. It was sweet, crunchy, and spicy.
2nd Course- Bao Chicka Bao Bao
The 2nd course was my favorite outside of the dessert. We learned that there are 43 different principled schools of thought when it comes down to making sake. Each school also has a unique style of sake that’s specific to that particular school. To vary the taste of sake, they alter the milling rate before fermenting it. This particular sake is great to pair with cheeses, meats, bread and such which is why Culinary Dr. Jae decided to pair the Pork Belly Bao with this Tokubetsu Junmai sake. The braised pork belly had a crispy perimeter with a bit of a tender middle, which was the perfect rough texture to pair with the softest bun you will ever eat in your life. I thought the slaw was just divine, even though I hate vegetables, and it was topped with Culinary Dr. Jae’s yum yum sauce.
3rd Course- A Spin on a Southern Classic
This Junmai sake, from the Kikusui Sake Company’s Chrysanthemum Dew brewery, knows how to appeal to the millennial drinker. I know you’ve seen all the wine in cans that I’ve definitely purchased time or two to either save on calories or save on portion. Having this sake in a can is very convenient and would allow a non-sake drinker to try different versions to see what they like without committing to an entire bottle.
I’m not going to pretend I’ve ever ordered chicken and waffles before, and yes, I’ve lived in Atlanta since 1998. As for my first experience, it was cool that it was Korean fried chicken with a kimchi waffle. I was told that traditional chicken and waffle meals are a combination of salty and sweet.
In this case, it was all sweet and quite tasty if you have a sweet tooth. The chicken was excellently seasoned and breaded in none other than panko. The kimchi was cooked into the waffle, which was another unique take by Culinary Dr. Jae. The particular Jinmai sake we had didn’t have a strong flavor, or else it would have been too much for the sweetness of the chicken and waffle. Don’t think it was only sweet, there was a hint of spice thanks to the spicy Korean honey that was drizzled on top.
4th Course- Brothless Ramen
At this point in the dinner, I was super full, but I will never turn down an opportunity to have ramen. This particular ramen is a style I’d never had before–brothless. This was made with special consideration that we live in the south and it can be hot as hell. Nothing will dehydrate you faster than having hot soup on a hot day. Don’t go into this dish expecting your usual feel and taste of ramen, because, for traditional ramen, the broth is everything. The ramen was tossed in soy dashi tare and it was topped with things like carrots, cabbage, scallions, and bamboo shoots. The minced pork had a nice kick to it thanks to the spicy Korean vinaigrette.
This spicy meal was paired with the last sake of the evening, another from the Kikusui Sake Co. They stuck with the can and the perfect sharing portion size for this round of sake. I appreciated this sake as much as I’d appreciate a cold beer on a hot summer day. I felt refreshed and it cooled the spice of the meal.
5th Course- Eat as Matcha This As You Want
This was by far my most favorite dish of the night (I am a big dessert lover). I’m sure you’ve been hearing all the excitement about matcha since the 2018 matcha tea hack went viral when Starbucks aficionados discovered they could order a cup of water and then ask for 2 scoops of matcha to essentially make a Starbucks green tea at 1/3 the price. Don’t worry, Starbucks caught onto it.
Anyway, so back to how I’d never had matcha, but now I’m obsessed thanks to the delicious dessert from Yakitori Jinbei. Culinary Dr. Jae created this delicious platter of a matcha battered waffle, topped with a fantastic Anglaise (that I could have used more of because it was perfection), and a scoop of green tea ice cream. You may hear all the green tea stuff and think it’s too much, but it was the most perfect thing I’ve had in a long time. I was sure to drag my waffle through that scrumptious Anglaise with every single bite. My waffle was never without at least 1 square’s worth of ice cream. It was so delicious that I ate my husband’s too since he’s not a big dessert fan.
Yakitori Jinbei is Putting Smyrna on the Foodie Map
Look, any foodie worth their title will want to check out Yakitori Jinbei if for nothing else, but the experience that is so carefully curated with pride and consideration for culture and umami thanks to the greatness that is Culinary Dr. Jae Choi. This restaurant is one of those quaint little holes in the wall restaurants located in a strip mall that turn out to be delicious. Even Guy Fieri knew it was something worth tasting which is why he featured Yakitori Jinbei on his Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives show on the Food Network. So if you’re ever in Smyrna looking for a delicious food experience then stop by Yakitori Jinbei located at 2421 Cobb Pkwy SE, Smyrna, GA 30080.
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