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Warming up to sake

Three Austin spots for the beverage, be it hot, tepid or cold.

Dina Guidubaldi
In the mood to sample different varieties of sake? Sushi Zushi serves sake flights, from the $8 nigori flight to the $21 Emperor's flight.

Rice wine is the most ethereal of alcoholic beverages, with its delicate flavors and names that translate into phrases such as 'Bride of the Fox,' 'Light of Jade' and 'Wandering Poet.'

Many good old-fashioned beer drinkers don't know what to do with sake, except guzzle it or ignore it, and many wine snobs don't consider it wine at all (which it isn't, if you consider wine as something that only comes from grapes and isn't brewed. On the other hand, if you think wine can be concocted from bananas, dandelions and/or good intentions, then sake might be right up your alley.)

According to most accounts, there are essentially three kinds of sake - Junmai-shu (the purest sake, made only of rice, water and koji mold), Honjozu-shu (sake plus additional brewer's alcohol) and Ginjo-shu (in which the rice is hyper-polished and includes the supposed 'best' sake, Daiginjo-shu) - all dependent on various fermentation methods, degrees of rice polishing and whether or not additional alcohol or water is added. For most American intents and purposes, though, there are three simpler categories: hot, cold and unfiltered sake. Unfiltered or nigori sake tends to be the least expensive, right after the ubiquitous hot Gekkeikan brand sake ($2 for a carafe at some happy hours), while the more meticulously polished daiginjos can cost hundreds of dollars for a small bottle.

Along with the varieties of sake (we won't go into the brewing, straining and fermenting techniques, namely because I can't keep them straight), there are different recommended temperatures at which to drink it (hot or cold or warm); a plethora of vessels from which to drink it (wooden masu boxes, tiny raku cups, flasks called tokkuri and probably seashells, dolls' ears or anything small and precious); and preferred foods to eat along with it (fish and seaweed and more fish). Most places that serve sake and most people who know a lot about it can agree on one thing, however: it's OK to drink massive quantities of it. Thanks to its purity, sake causes relatively no hangover and results instead in what's been described as a 'happy, fun buzz.' But they probably said that about gin once upon a time.

Musashino

3407 Greystone Drive (first floor), 795-8593, www.musashinosushi.com . Hours: Lunch runs from 11:30 am. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays. Dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays. Open until 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Musashino, with its low ceilings, wooden trim and hanging paper lanterns, is something like an ancient junk ship (retrofitted with a late '80s faux-marbled décor), and is dark and cozy and great for dates. Despite this, it's often crowded not just with nuzzling couples, but with families-dads in short white socks and gangly teens ready to venture beyond California rolls-and businesspeople obviously getting off work in all parts north.

Claiming to be a proper Tokyo-style sushi restaurant (having never been, I'll take their word for it), Musashino is a little on the traditional side. This means that their prices are higher than usual, their cuts of fish more fresh, and their menu full of rules about how not to eat sushi (don't mix the wasabi with the soy sauce and don't rub the chopsticks together). Their 24 sakes range from $7 a glass to $300 a 720 ml bottle, and very fortunately for the hot sake lover who's trying to be thrifty but knows he should avoid the lower-quality Gekkeikan stuff, Musashino has a hot unfiltered house sake (a relative rarity) that tastes like coconut, clouds and white pepper and costs only $9.50 for a large carafe.

Kung Fu Saloon

510 Rio Grande St., 469-0901, www.kungfusaloon.com . Hours: 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays. 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends.

Situated smack dab across from Wahoo's and down from Key Bar, the Kung Fu Saloon had me feeling a little hesitant. Plus, themes are always something to be wary of, and the Kung Fu's got a pretty obvious one-their logo is a genius image of two beer bottles linked at the top like nunchuks. Additionally, their drink specialty is the sake bomb, which, as far as I can tell, isn't the most refined way to drink sake, but leave it to us Americans to decide sake tastes better once it's been dumped into a glass of beer.

Thankfully, Kung Fu Saloon's nine different sake bombs are actually pretty good, and their prices even better. The Longhorne tastes like a breakfast drink, with sake, Lone Star and orange juice, and The Cowboy (sake in pear cider) sticks sweetly to your teeth like a Jolly Rancher (which would be a better name for it, come to think of it). Despite the fact that sports are on all the TVs, and that Bob Marley music was playing on the Saturday afternoon when I went, the frat element isn't too intense. The bartender was genuinely friendly, the range of draft beers is wide (including Chimay and Maredsous for the classy drinkers) and the arcade games are plentiful and old-school.

Sushi Zushi

Downtown: 1611 W. Fifth St. 5th St., 474-7000. Domain II: 3221 Feathergrass Court, 848-8100, www.sushizushi.com . Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays, open until 11 p.m. on Fridays. 12:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturdays. 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Sushi Zushi is still just a small Texas chain, but they've got corporate America-expanding potential, which means a clean, chilly interior full of Four Hands-esque fixtures and rolls full of cream cheese for those who wish sushi weren't quite so fishy. In all my years of eating sushi, never have I seen or eaten a roll with actual melted cheese on top (the Monterey Roll, $10) but at Sushi Zushi, there's apparently no limit to their imagination or what's considered appropriate fare. Their menus are varied (a sushi menu, a sake menu, a drink menu, a happy hour menu, all crammed full of tiny print) and overwhelming enough to make you just give up and order the Sushi Sampler ($14).

Fortunately, Sushi Zushi's preoccupation with variety translates into sake flights (they have four, ranging from the $8 nigori flight to the $21 Emperor's flight), along with several draft sakes, infused sakes, and sake cocktails (which are only $5 during Happy Hour, Mondays through Fridays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.). At my table, on three different occasions, the crowd favorite was the Moonstone Coconut Lemongrass nigori, which tastes like it sounds and evokes images not of misty mountains and staff-wielding, wispy-bearded sages, but of tanning salons, sorority girls and summer.