Despite sake’s growing popularity in the states, the spirit remains an enigma to patrons and operators alike. But one sake sommelier is working passionately to blow the category wide open as a signature, destination spirit. In doing so, she’s bucking the status quo conventions of sake service and consumption in the United States.
One needs to be a good student to understand sake — and be a good salesman to sell it. Although curious, American consumers don’t really understand sake. For example, most don’t realize it’s best consumed cold, not hot, and most servers don’t bother to tell them. And although some mixologists work with sake, it’s not getting much love; it’s delicate, and gets lost quickly when mixed with other spirits and ingredients, so crafting cocktails with sake requires a highly skilled mixologist.
Ten years since its opening in New York City, SUSHISAMBA is a familiar and still booming restaurant concept. At its Las Vegas location, SUSHISAMBA and sake sommelier Tiffany Dawn Soto are cranking up the original concept by mining the Japanese component of its cultural blend (which also includes Brazilian and Peruvian influences) to brilliantly corner the market on a complex and complicated spirit. Soto has super-sized the sake program at SUSHISAMBA’s property in Las Vegas, a town in which the wow factor continues to become harder and harder to harness as operators push the envelope literally 24-7 with newer and newer concepts. Even by Vegas standards, Soto’s sake program impresses.
Sake accounts for 8 to 10 percent of total revenue, according to Soto; in fact, she’s sold as much as $80,000 in sake in one month. SUSHISAMBA’s biggest night in sake sales, Soto says, was around $8,000 — including about 90 bottles sold. A slow night might be closer to $1,500.
A Tri-Cultural Concept
Today, every great concept must have a great story. SUSHISAMBA’s inspiration came from a tri-cultural coalition — of Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisine, music and design — that took root in the early 20th century when thousands of Japanese emigrants traveled to South America’s fertile soil to cultivate coffee plantations and find their fortunes. Soon, hearty moquecas and colorful seviches found a place at the table alongside simple miso soup and tender sashimi.
SUSHISAMBA harnessed that blend and opened in New York City in 1999. Its three managing partners — Matt Johnson, Shimon Bokovza and Danielle Billera — now operate a second location in Manhattan and properties in Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas and Tel Aviv. The trio introduced the Sugarcane boutique nightclub component two years ago at the Park Avenue location in New York and then to the Chicago and Las Vegas properties.
The $14 million Vegas property in the Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino — where SUSHISAMBA, Sugarcane and back-of-house areas occupy approximately 12,000 square feet — celebrated its grand opening September 19, 2008 after a soft opening the previous month. Total staff there numbers about 150 and serves upwards of 1,200 dinners on a Saturday night.
While Sugarcane is the news at SUSHISAMBA, the big story is sake — especially now that its Las Vegas unit has taken the spirit to a captivating extreme.
The uninitiated may refer to sake as “rice wine.” However, unlike true wine, in which a vintner produces alcohol by fermenting the sugar naturally present in fruit, sake brewers use a process more similar to that of beer. Wine generally contains 9 to 16 percent alcohol, and most beer is 3 to 8 percent; undiluted sake is 18 to 20 percent alcohol. Sake is indeed unique, not only in its production, but also in its heritage and flavor profile, providing SUSHISAMBA with a strong beverage point of differentiation.
“All the great steakhouses have fabulous wine lists,” Johnson says. “We couldn’t be No. 1 in wine, but we own the market in sake. We’ve really spent a lot of money on sake. It goes with our concept and with sushi.” Sake is the calling card at SUSHISAMBA’s other locations, but, Johnson says, “It’s more intense in Las Vegas.”
Falling Into It
“Intense” is an understatement in describing the sake program and Soto’s fanatical passion that fuels it. Her deep expertise in the category is surprising, considering that she just “fell into” it, and that she has amassed such a wealth of knowledge by age 27.
Soto waited tables while a philosophy major at UNC-Chapel Hill, where a wine class uncovered her talent for blind-tasting wine and led to a gig as teaching assistant. From Chapel Hill, she headed to Las Vegas for an advertising degree at UNLV, but the siren song of beverage beckoned. At UNLV, she got involved again in wine courses as a teaching assistant. “There’s a huge Asian enrollment at UNLV’s hospitality school,” Soto says. “I had tons of Japanese students asking me about sake, and I wasn’t qualified to respond.” That didn’t last long. Soto studied sake and became enthralled with the spirit — going all the way to Japan where she learned more and won tasting competitions at age 24. “This opened more doors for me, because they were competitions that had never been won or even placed in by people who weren’t old Japanese men,” she says.
Since, Soto has completed the World Sake Professional Level Certification program and won an award from the Niigata Prefecture for selling the most sake from their prefecture outside Japan. She returned to Japan to pass her Masters Level Certification — the highest level available to English speakers — at 25. Before SUSHISAMBA, Soto worked in wine and sake at the Wynn and in a consulting position for Station Casinos, where she created the sake program for its Asian Room in Las Vegas. At the latter, she also served as wine sommelier, but her heart — and palate — were driving her to sake. The opportunity to truly pursue her passion arose with SUSHISAMBA’s entry into Las Vegas. “They asked me to come in for a chat,” Soto says. “I told them that the only way I’d be interested is if I could handle sake for multiple properties where sake is as important to the room as it is to me. That’s exactly what they wanted.”
Passion and Profit
Since Soto joined SUSHISAMBA Las Vegas, the sake roster has flourished, far exceeding the depth of labels at other locations. “SUSHISAMBA’s always had a focus on sake, but never like we focus on it in Las Vegas,” Soto says, noting that other locations carry 40 to 45 labels. SUSHISAMBA’s Las Vegas selection ranges from 130 to 140 sakes, fluctuating from week to week as Soto introduces new limited-quantity labels. “We have the largest allocations in America of most of the rarest sakes in the world.”
Before opening the restaurant, Soto’s team tasted 420 sakes over three weeks. While she had already earmarked some favorites for the list, she went looking for sakes that weren’t available in Vegas yet. This selectivity, Soto says, is the point of difference between the SUSHISAMBA sake program and others in the Las Vegas market. It also allowed Soto to present a balanced, accessible list that spans a range of categories and price points, presenting something for everyone.
Soto claims to have the largest sake buying power in Las Vegas and “close to the largest buying power on the west coast, with the exception of one sake store in San Francisco, which could have me beat.” Sake bottle prices start as low as $25 and top out at around $1,300. “Believe it or not, we sell quite a few at that high price point, including Shichiken aged sake.”
Anyone wondering why a guest would spring for such an expensive bottle isn’t sitting at a table at SUSHISAMBA, entranced by Soto’s deep knowledge, which soft-sells the bottles. She rattles off facts about specific labels like a sports commentator spouts obscure, odd stats during a game. The difference is that, unlike the latter, she doesn’t have a research firm providing her with the info. It’s all in her head.
It stands to reason that a sake inventory so vast would, over time, weigh heavier and heavier on the bottom line if management and staff can’t move it. Soto can’t hand-sell it all by herself, so staff training is integral, given the depth of product at hand. SUSHISAMBA’s staff undergoes two hours of mandatory sake training each week; Soto tackles one of 24 topics — ranging from sake-making styles to unpasteurized sakes to food pairings to nuances from region to region in Japan — during each session. “At the end of the 24, we go through the same topics, but more in-depth,” she says.
While stunning architecture and high style are the visual signatures of SUSHISAMBA and Sugarcane, the vibe is relatively casual. Sake salesmanship follows suit — snobbery has no place. “My staff is very well-trained to help people navigate the menu, but my objective is to help people have a good time,” Soto says. “You’re not going to see me tableside in a full suit, looking down on someone who has $40 to spend versus $400.” In addition, Soto doesn’t sell the guest if he doesn’t want to be sold. But if he asks for guidance, he gets it. “I tell them that our list can be a little overwhelming, and I’m there to make it as easy as possible,” she says. “I say, ‘Let’s narrow the field for you.’ I’ll ask them what they drink when they don’t drink sake.
“Usually, there’s not a common thread for the whole table. If I have five people at the table who tell me they like vodka, and one person says Scotch, I know immediately that we go to Masumi Nanago. It’s a very clean sake that has a caramelized edge on the nose, with a little bit of sweetness,” she says. “The Scotch drinkers love the caramelized edge, and vodka drinkers love how clean it is. It meets in the middle, and they’re very happy.
For a table of all vodka drinkers, Soto recommends Kirinzan Junmai Daiginjo, which she says, “literally drinks like water, with no smell to the nose, very little aftertaste and almost evaporates off the back of the tongue.” Another choice might be Senshin Ultra Daiginjo, a competition sake that rarely makes it out of Japan. No matter the consumer’s usual flavor profile, Soto has a sake to match, ranging from higher acidity selections to those with brighter fruit flavor. “There are sparkling sakes for Champagne drinkers and aged sakes for sherry drinkers. I have one, Dewazakura Izumi Judan, which literally tastes like a Gin Martini. It’s a 12-plus on the dry scale — the highest — and it smells like juniper.”
Sake’s growing in popularity — the U.S. Department of Commerce cites U.S. sake imports increasing from 193,000 in 2000 to 360,000 cases in 2007 — but misconceptions persist among consumers. “The biggest one is, ‘I thought sake was served hot,’” Soto says. “We don’t have hot sake. And while I certainly can heat sake for anyone who might want it, I would say that might happen only once a week.” To further their education, Soto launched SUSHISAMBA’s SUSHI+SAKE101 class in November 2008. The $85 class, also popular at other SUSHISAMBA locations, includes a five-course dinner and is a journey into the history and traditions of sushi and sake. In Las Vegas, Soto and sushi chef Koji Kajawa lead the charge.
For the first half of class, Soto takes guests through the world of sake tasting and schools them in the spirit’s history. Each week’s class tackles a different sub-category of sake. The second half tutors guests on the fish in the SUSHISAMBA strip sushi bar — from cutting raw fish to identifying sushi-grade fish and how to make a roll of sushi. “Tiffany has an uncanny ability to pair sake and food,” says John Gauntner. Recognized as the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert, Gauntner is also the author of five sake books, including The Sake Handbook, and his site, www.sake-world.com, is a valuable resource on all things sake. “She is very lucid in her communication and makes it extremely easy for customers to enjoy the sake, the food and their pairings.” This lucidity, combined with her passion, also keeps staff engaged and excited.
Sake also finds its way into the constantly evolving cocktail program at Las Vegas SUSHISAMBA. The Strawberry Sake Caipirinha, for example, is the No. 1 seller among the sake-based tipples. A standard Saketini is also popular. “Every month we create a new cocktail,” Soto explains. “Sometimes there’s sake in it, and sometime there’s not. We have a few cocktails that are always on the list; others change every month.” Of course, ultimately, straight sake is the main attraction. By providing an experience based on passion and product depth, SUSHISAMBA and Soto are hitting the sake sales stratosphere.