By Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist Published Oct 03, 2009 at 11:21 AM

October is the third annual Dining Month on All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."

In keeping with the "Dining Month" theme for October, I want to focus for the next four weeks on a few local establishments and what makes them unique. To start things off, we are going to take a look at Sake, the restaurant responsible for bringing great sake to Wisconsin and why you should eat there.

Since opening nine years ago, Nanakusa, 408 E. Chicago St., has had one goal -- to bring traditional Japanese cuisine to Milwaukee.

If you are not familiar with sake, here are your Cliff's notes. Sake is made from rice. It is a brewed alcoholic beverage. There are varying degrees of quality determined by production and the amount milled away from each grain of rice. There are more than 30,000 unique sake labels, almost all from Japan. The unique and distinctive flavors of sake rival the most complex wines. (For limitless additional information about sake, you should definitely go to Nanakusa and speak with the owner, Richard Kaiser and the staff. Richard's knowledge and passion for sake and Japanese cuisine is incredible.)

Sake and Nanakusa
Before Nanakusa opened, there was very little decent sake to be had in the city. After years of pressuring his vendors to import and distribute quality sake from Japan, Richard was finally successful. Now instead of requesting to have the option to buy great sake, his vendors are begging him buy from their large sake portfolios.

When choosing a particular sake for the list at Nanakusa, his first goal is quality -- he is always looking for better product. There is a sake style for any taste from sweet to dry, clean and classic, to bold and complex. The beauty of sake is that when it comes to pairing with Japanese cuisine, sake is incredibly versatile. This gives the guest tremendous confidence when experimenting with sake.

The knowledgeable staff, under Richard's tutelage, takes the basic principles of sake pairing, combines that with the guests' individual preference and focuses on finding the perfect sake for you to enjoy. Richard had a few anecdotes involving one guest who loved scotch, another who only drank oaky red zinfandels and how he found the perfect sake for both of them which reflected certain characteristics of their beverages of choice.

I asked Richard which sakes he currently enjoys having on the list and current menu items to accompany them:

  • Kurasawa "Kimoto" - a very affordable tier sake but still exhibits great koji style (ask Richard about koji) and contains subtle aromas but still has plenty of weight. He really likes to pair the "Kimoto" with tempura. The lightly fried seafood or vegetables really play nicely with the nuances of the earthy koji flavors.
  • Mizbasho Ginjo "Water Plant" has wonderful anise and floral notes, and is beautifully feminine. This delicate sake pairs exceptionally well with sashimi and milder nigiri (Sashimi on top of rice).
  • Shichiken Ginjo "7 Wisdoms" is a full, rich sake that remarkably enough, reminds the drinker of autumn. It contains gorgeous earthen notes, with smells of fresh foliage alongside great crisp acidity. Richard loves to pair this with the current special of Matsutaki mushrooms which Chef de Cuisine Ian Somerville is preparing three different ways.
  • Katana Ginjo "Samurai Sword" is very dry, full flavored with subtle earth notes alongside crisp cedar. A full bodied sake like this pairs well with one of my favorite dishes, the Buta No Kaku Ni which is Japanese black pork slowly simmered in a savory/sweet sauce.

Nanakusa Philosophy
In order to adequately discuss what makes Nanakusa different and special, we need to first look at what makes traditional Japanese Cuisine so special.

Japanese cuisine as a cooking style has been around for more than a thousand years. At it's core is simplicity, and in order to attain perfection in simplicity, the freshness of the ingredients is essential. The cuisine style changes from region to region in Japan. Those areas inland focus on organically raised animals and fresh produce. Regions near the coasts obviously focus on fresh seafood. The portions are small, designed for maximal effect on the palate with the simplest of ingredients. In a country known for attention to detail and unparalleled craftsmanship, it is only natural that those qualities express themselves in the cuisine.

The goal of Nanakusa is to bring the quality of diversity ingredients not found anywhere else and present the most traditional of Japanese dishes. When you dine at Nanakusa, your food is served to you in the order it is prepared from the kitchen, just as it would be in Japan. The raw and seafood items are best served fresh, so they tend to be served together. The cooked or prepared courses may come after, or, depending on the dishes ordered, may alternate with certain seafood dishes. Be prepared to relax and enjoy the food as it comes. Put yourself in the hands of the extremely knowledgeable staff and relax. When I eat at Nanakusa, I don't even open the menu. I let the staff surprise me with whatever fun and exciting things they are featuring. They are very skilled and working with your personal tastes and the pace and flow of the meal is how Japanese cuisine works the best.

Another thing makes Nanakusa different is the uniqueness of many of the offerings. Richard takes great pride in bringing in things that no one else in the state would chance. Live Uni (Sea Urchin), Raw Octopus, Onkimo (Monkfish Liver), Aji (Horse Mackerel), Trigger fish, Buri (Winter Yellowtail that was only available at Nanakusa out of the entire Midwest) and many, many more. All of these items are brought in only when they are in season and available. If you would like to receive notice of when these delectable treats become available, sign up for the e-mail newsletter at But take note, when these special items are brought in, the regulars flock in and buy up multiple orders, so don't waste any time.

If you aren't the adventurous type when it comes to exotic fish and produce, or can't stand the idea of anything raw, you should still eat at Nanakusa. Sure they have some of the freshest fish anywhere, but they also offer a plethora of items that will cater to a more conservative palate. Beef, duck, chicken, pork, vegetables; all are prepared with the same quality and brilliant simplicity of traditional Japanese cuisine. They even offer a few of items such as California rolls, but even these will be the best California rolls you have ever had. Think Chicken teriyaki is tired? Not when you try their authentic, homemade teriyaki sauce.

Special Events at Nanakusa
Much like everything else about Nanakusa, the special events offer not just meals, but an experience rooted in the beauty of Japanese cuisine and culture. Richard likes to orchestrate the events around what he feels is Nanakusa as a cultural center. Instead of just doing another wine dinner, or sake dinner, Richard typically will seat 14 guests in the tatami room (low table with cutout floor). He feels that since Japanese cuisine is so centered around shared experience and social contact, a dinner at Nanakusa should be just that. The intimacy and social connectedness of sitting at a communal table and experience a beautifully detailed pairing menu is something special. He regaled me with stories of couples and groups that dined together and made business contacts, friendships and others who return to Nanakusa to dine together on a regular basis.

A special feature for each dinner involves Richard pairing multiple sakes/wines with each course. You start with one course and one wine, but then halfway through the first course you are given a second wine that will draw out different flavors from the dish than the first. This second wine is then used as the first wine for the next course and so on. Believe me, after years of creating wine dinners myself, to intentionally double the difficulty by presenting a second wine is incredibly difficult and borders on madness from a restaurateur's standpoint. But you need to take advantage of this beautiful madness and experience a Nanakusa sake/wine dinner for yourself.

Nanakusa also regularly hosts a very special event -- the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony. In addition to tasting a variety of imported Japanese teas, Richard's lovely wife Yoko is attired in traditional Kimono and, with the help of her friends, performs the intricate and entrancing ceremony which has been a part of Japanese culture for more than a thousand years.

Another upcoming cultural event is the Nanakusa "Field Trip" to the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Illinois. Designed in 1978 by Hoichi Korisu, these gardens are the result of the peace and tranquility John Anderson experienced when visiting Japan in 1966. Visit for more details on this exciting trip.

If you haven't had the chance to try Nanakusa, you should.

If you have tried it, what are some of your favorite sakes or dishes?


Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist
Nathaniel Bauer has spent the last 10 years as a wine buyer for some of Milwaukee’s finest restaurants. Two standouts include a six-year tenure with Bartolotta’s that culminated at Bacchus as a manager and sommelier, followed by two years as the General Manager and certified sommelier at Dream Dance. Finally late in ‘08 he hung up his wine key to start a family. Even though he is now the Marketing Director for a local software company, Big Bang LLC, wine keeps calling his name. The steady chant that kept him in the restaurant business for more than a decade, even after his several attempts to ignore its call, keeps him up to date on current vintages and producers around the globe. Bauer still visits many Milwaukee establishments, both retail and restaurant, to stay a part of the fantastic wine community in this city. Now, after more than a decade in the wine and restaurant market, he is glad to have no direct affiliations and looks forward to offering an experienced and impartial opinion on how local wine purveyors can be even more successful.