**Reposted from Rice, Water Earth: Notes on Sake**

On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I hoped to visit the Echo Park  restaurant Tsubaki and its little brother, sake bar Ototo. I wanted to sample from co-owner Courtney Kaplan’s interesting sake program and talk to her about how she and her partner, chef Charles Namba, came to be serving elevated izakaya fare and great sake in their corner of Echo Park.

Tsubaki was open and preparations were underway to bring Ototo out of lockdown in a matter of days. In that flurry of activity, our schedules did not align, but I did managed to connect with Courtney on Zoom after I returned to Toronto. Our conversation made me more eager than before to make a reservation at Ototo the next time I’m town.

One reason is that Kaplan, who manages the front of house as well as the sake and wine lists for both restaurants, favors small craft sake producers that skew domaine-style and organic, and in wine, organic and biodynamic.

 “I look for producers that do estate-grown rice,” she told me, such as Nagayama Honke Brewery’s Taka, which she called “accessible and crowd-pleasing.” She’s  also partial to breweries like Yucho in Nara (the maker of the Kaze no Mori line), for its “fascinating blend of ancient and modern techniques,” and Senkin in Tochigi, for its single-minded embrace of locally grown rice and its sakes’ trademark elevated acidity. She likes Mutemuka Brewery in Kochi Prefecture, a pioneer in organic rice growing, and Akishika Brewery in Osaka. In addition to using all-organic rice, most of it is estate grown, and the brewery offers a selection of aged sake as well.

But there are other things to look for at Ototo besides sake. I’m eager to try Kumamoto-made Oka Kura Bermutto, or vermouth. Its junmai sake base is fortified with rice shochu and perfumed with Japanese botanicals including yuzu, yomogi, and sancho peppercorns. A cross of two beverages I love!

Kaplan began making yearly batches of ume shu, or plum wine, even before opening Tsubaki in 2017 (Ototo opened in 2019); this year she snagged 45 pounds of green plums from the farmer’s market and made enough to put on the drinks menu, along with close to a dozen other plum wines. The plum wine is also available in Kaplan and Namba’s pantry shop, which sells things I wish I could get my hands on in Canada, like Hyogo Prefecture-brewed usukuchi soy sauce from Suehiro Shoyu,  or a line of Iio Jozo vinegars from Kyoto.

As it did for many of us, Kaplan’s route to sake involved a fair bit of serendipity.

In 1999, she decided to do her junior year abroad in Tokyo, drawn there mostly because she liked Japanese fashion. To make it a truly immersive experience she looked for a job, landing one as a server at a Hawaiian-style barbecue restaurant in the Ebisu district. Management figured an American, even a college student from Long Island, was on-theme enough for them.

 But Tsubaki’s sake menu perplexed some customers. “We didn’t have a lot of the big brands, no Dassai, Hakkaisan, Kikusui or Kubota,” Kaplan recalls. One thing guests have embraced wholeheartedly,  Kaplan says, is fresh and lively unpasteurized sake. “There’s a huge interest in nama now … it’s having a moment,” she says.

In many ways serving sake to Angelenos was easier than it was at En in the mid-2000s, she notes, when guests would declare, “I only drink junmai daiginjo,” or “I only drink cold sake,” and look askance at any other recommendations. “What I really love about working with sake in L.A. is that the majority of our guests are really excited about sake and want to learn,” she explains. “They’re not coming to us with any hang-ups.” Yet L.A. diners do share the attitude toward elevated izakaya fare that she encountered during the early days of En: many equate the word “izakaya” with cheap eats, and aren’t used to paying what it costs to serve more creative and specialized fare that goes beyond standard sushi and ramen offerings.

Our conversation was a tantalizing appetizer to the main course–my eventual visit to Echo Park. I can’t wait! One word of warning about visiting Tsubaki and/or Ototo: both are small; 33 seats at Tsubaki and 38 at Ototo, with an expected 10 more outdoor seats each once they are both at full capacity.

So plan ahead, and when you’re there, raise a glass to the growing sister (and brother-)hood of sake!