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From Dom Pérignon To Japanese Sake

Monarch held a special pairing dinner with a legendary drinks maker

The man is a legend. For 28 years, Richard Geoffroy was chef de cave at Dom Pérignon. And now, as he sits across from me at Monarch, he's turned his attention elsewhere: to sake.

We're on the 49th floor, near the bar. Geoffroy, decked out in a navy polo and blazer, nurses a martini, his way of adjusting from just arriving from Paris, where he still calls home for part of the year. The rest of the time, he's introducing his IWA sake or at the brewery in Toyama, Japan. IWA means “large rock,” and we are here at Monarch for a special IWA-pairing dinner, to show off how well his sake goes with modern, elegant Italian food. 

The ingredients in sake are deceptively simple: rice, water, yeast and koji, which is a sweet rice that is covered with koji spores (koji is also used in soy sauce and miso). And as Geoffroy points out, you can pretty much do whatever you want as long as you use those ingredients. Making sake is an endless decision tree, with countless permutations for every step along the way, whether that's water types, rice varieties, rice milling ratios, koji spore selection, koji production types, yeast types, yeast starter types, fermentation lengths, sake pressing styles, filtration methods and maturation lengths. It's endless. And human hands are intimately involved throughout the entire process. And for Geoffroy, it's liberating. In Europe, wine, he tells me, isn't innovative. 

"I tell sake brewers all the time, 'don't be like wine,'" he says. I immediately like Geoffroy. He might hail from a wine family and made his bones in the champagne business, but he's a sake guy. I'm a sake guy. 

"I have more freedom in Japan than in France."

"Because," he continues, "you cannot copy something that is at risk or copy something that is at a crossroads with an uncertain future, because the wine industry is probably going to shrink." I am deeply familiar with sake, writing an award-winning book on the subject, The Japanese Saké Bible. And I know it's become fashionable in Japan for sake brewers to make wine-esque or inspired brews. But sake could not be more different. 

Monarch Director of Wine Julie Braunstein. Photo: Shoko Ashcraft

"I owe so much to Dom Pérignon," says Geoffroy. "IWA would not exist without it. But, I was done with wine." So why, after 28 years, did he leave wine? "For the sake of creativity," he says, explaining that there wasn't the same discovery and innovation. He was too much in his comfort zone. After nearly three decades, he wanted to push himself. 

"If I define myself, I am in the creative industry," he says. I ask for clarification: You're not in the drinks industry? "No," he says, "I'm in the creative industry."

The IWA brewery sits on 10 hectares of rice paddies and is designed by Kengo Kuma, the famed Japanese architect responsible for Japan's 2020 Olympic stadium. Twenty locals were hired to brew, and Masato Yabuta, who previously worked at one of Japan's oldest breweries, Kenbishi, was brought in as the toji (master brewer). 

"I have more freedom in Japan than in France," he says. "Everyone thinks Japan is conservative, and some people are conservative, right? But generally speaking, to me, Japan is not conservative. It's more an element of tension between tradition and innovation. The Japanese can be so innovative."

Geoffroy first tried sake in the 1980s while in Napa. He doesn't remember much, other than it was flowing free that night. But everything changed in the year 2000. He was in Kyoto, at a restaurant near Daitokuji Temple. He tried a local sake. "I saw a light. I had a revelation. It was my madeleine de Proust."

But it's not just the creative freedom that sake offers. "I like the vegetal quality in sake," Geoffroy says. This green note isn't present in every sake, but it is a note that is appreciated. Typically, the broader aromas and flavors in sake, such as apple and pear, are readily noticed. The vegetal aromas are deeper and more complex. "The green tinge gives anything in aromatics a lift," Geoffroy says. "Anything I make, even at Dom Pérignon, has that tinge of green." For him, sake was a new, more liberating canvas.

What do you think about the pairings? I ask Geoffroy as we go into the dining room. "Ask me after the dinner,” he replies. 

Julie Braunstein, Monarch's wine director and head sommelier, pours a glass of IWA 5 Assemblage 3, served chilled. Geoffroy calls each IWA sake an "assemblage," as they are a blend, rather, an assemblage of different sakes. The evening started off with glasses of 2013 Dom Pérignon, a nod to Geoffroy's former wine-making career, before moving into his sake.

"When I tasted Assemblage 3, I was blown away," Braunstein tells me later. It was spring 2023, and after that first glass, she started thinking about pairings — not sushi, but white truffle pasta and foie gras.

Photo: Shoko Ashcraft / Local Profile

"I immediately loved the product," she continues. A pairing dinner could show off what IWA could do with Monarch's elegant, modern culinary creations. But Geoffroy is busy. So is Monarch. A year later, the dinner finally happened. 

The first course is a finger food: caviar cannoli paired with IWA 5 Assemblage 3 (2021). All the diners are given the small, scrumptious cannoli — a move that isn't only to open our palate, but the room.

During these small, intimate dinners, you share a table with strangers for three hours. You get to know your fellow diners, but there is usually the same awkward start. The caviar cannoli immediately broke the ice. Smart move. And delicious. 

The second course is Hokkaido scallop crudo, paired with IWA 5 Assemblage 4 (2022) served at cellar temperature (somewhere between 55°F and 57°F). Assemblage 3 has good, round acidity, but Assemblage 4 starts out sweet, before going into vegetable notes for a dry finish. The sake perfectly underscores the maritime scallop flavors, further teasing out those nuances. It's a brilliant pairing, and makes an excellent dish even better. In the courses that follow — foie gras torchon and A5 wagyu — show how well IWA does with richer dishes. Assemblage 1, a big, flavorful sake from 2019, is served at body temperature and holds its own brilliantly with the wagyu, cutting through the fat and complementing the meat. A crescendo of flavor, with a mango tart denouement that follows, paired with IWA 5 Assemblage 2. 

"The same theory for wine pairing applies to sake: you are either contrasting or mirroring," Braunstein tells me. So, high fat and high acidity are a classic contract, but you can also highlight umami or earthiness or bring out bright, fresh flavors. All of this was on display at the dinner — but the drink goes even further. Explains Braunstein, "Sake, for me, is a very textural experience and, as far as a beverage goes, more textural than wine."

Dish after dish and throughout the night, Geoffroy is thoroughly and audibly pleased with how Monarch's modern Italian cuisine pairs with his sake. He fist bumps me and says "wow, wow" over and over. 

This is my dream: One day, sake, a beverage that is typically served in the U.S. at Japanese restaurants, would be on all kinds of menus, whether that's a steakhouse or a Mexican restaurant. I want sake to become normalized and not marginalized. I want it to be "normal" like vodka and tequila. "Sake has the potential to be universal, like beer," Geoffroy says. "Sake keeps growing. Exports keep growing. The two categories of beverages that are growing are nonalcoholic and sake." 

And people here in the States are noticing. Days later, Braunstein tells me that the reaction from the IWA dinner and the sake itself have been overwhelmingly positive.

While Monarch's sister restaurant, Kessaku, serves sake with its cuisine, Monarch doesn't. 

"You gotta give people what they want."

"For me, this sake is a little different category than what people traditionally associate with sake," Braunstein says about IWA. "This, for me, is definitely a wine lover's sake. It's a great bridge for those who are either unfamiliar with sake or reluctant to get into it."

"I think that there's room to have some more sake presence at Monarch, because why not?" she continues. "And so one of my next projects, I think, over the next few weeks is just to build out a page in the monarch wine list, probably towards the back, but just have our sake listed there. Because there's no reason not to at this point when people are asking for it. You gotta give people what they want."

Here it is. The last course is served. Geoffroy and I are talking about sakes we love — and again, it comes across, he truly loves sake and truly loves Japan. Tomorrow, he’s off to Houston. Another airplane. Another airport. Another IWA event.

I thank Geoffroy for the evening and the sake, and ask him what he thought of the Monarch dinner. He makes a chef's kiss and smiles. Perfect.

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