I love good sake as much as good wine, but it's much harder to order in a restaurant. The selection is usually small, the markup is usually egregious, and often the server doesn't know anything about them.
It's a shame, because premium sake is very food-friendly and a delicious change of pace from your usual quaff.
I love to start a multi-bottle meal at a good restaurant with sake, instead of or before white wine. And I want sake every time I go to an izakaya or sushi bar (beer is perfectly fine at both, but I like sake better).
I could recommend some brands of sake I like (Dewazakura Dewasansan, at right, for example, is my go-to). But who knows what the restaurant you're in will stock? Instead, here are my simple rules for ordering sake in a restaurant.
1) Japanese-made sake is always better. Gekkeikan, Momokawa, Shochiku Bai, Takara and Shirakabe Gura are made in the US.* I don't order them.
* (Some of these brands also have operations in Japan -- Momokawa's Japanese sake is pretty good -- but you rarely see the imports in a US restaurant. They make sake over here for a reason: to sell to us.)
2) Fresh is always better.
I prefer an unopened 180 ml or 300 ml bottle to a glass from a 1.8-litre bottle behind the bar. If I must order from a 1.8-litre, I try to choose an unopened one, or give the edge to the bottle that looks like it was opened most recently.
Initially I had this as the first point on the list, but I realized I would order a glass of Japanese sake from an open bottle over a sealed small bottle of Gekkeikan. So, nationality over freshness.
3) "Onigoroshi" means "Demon killer." Yippee. It's a brand name like any other. Unless you are possessed by demons, don't give any extra weight to cool or poetic English translations of the Japanese name. They're into marketing like everybody else.
4) Junmai ginjo sakes are the most wine-like. If you're new to sake, try these.
5) Nigori is the White Zinfandel of sake. There's nothing wrong with White Zin, but if you've moved past it in your wine drinking, it's time to move past it with sake.
6) There's nothing wrong with hot sake, but the best sakes are always cold (with some exceptions served at room temperature). Don't ask the server to heat up a sake that's not meant to be heated.
7) Don't overpay; markups in US restaurants are just crazy. A good bottle that costs $25 at True Sake might set you back $100 in a sushi bar. I generally won't spend more than about $60 for a bottle of sake in a restaurant. There are sakes well worth more than that, but I'd rather drink them at home for a quarter of the price.
8) In most sushi bars, the sushi chef knows more about sakes than the server. Ask for his recommendation.
9) Those charming wooden boxes make your sake taste like wood. I like drinking sake out of a white-wine glass.
10) Don't overthink it! Ordering beer doesn't cause anyone to pause or worry. Think about ordering sake the same way: even if you don't get "the right one," there's always tomorrow.