Biz buzz: For the sake of the sake

Think you’ve tasted sake before?

If you drank it warm, if it was pasteurized, if, heaven forbid, you called it rice wine, then Blake Richardson would beg to differ.

Richardson’s moto-i sake brewery and restaurant opened late last month at 2940 Lyndale Ave. S., and it’s branded as the only such place in the world outside of Japan. While there isn’t anybody who keeps stats on such things, Richardson, who’s put years of research and work into sake brewing, has the authority to make the claim.

“I’m pretty well-connected to the sake industry, and I haven’t heard of a single one,” he said.

Moto-i features three handcrafted sakes brewed on-site, with a complex array of flavors that range from dry and crisp to sweet and fruity. The restaurant plans to introduce additional sakes in the coming months and sell take-home bottles of each variety.

A brief tutorial on sake: It’s a malted beverage created with a brewing process that has more in common with beer than wine. It’s made from rice (different kinds yield different flavors) that’s finely milled to remove the outer layers of fat and oils, converted to sugar, and then combined with yeast to make the final product. Richardson buys his yeast — No. 7, it’s called, discovered some 60 years ago and a popular choice for many sake brewers — straight from Japan.

Moto-i has a full menu ranging from sake-complementary snacks to full entrees. It isn’t a sushi place; rather, the cuisine is modeled after casual Japanese fare that includes a range of skewers and noodle and curry bowls.

Richardson’s journey to sake began several years ago, and simply enough: He tried premium sake. It was like nothing he had ever tasted before. He was hooked.

Somebody else might have entertained the idea of opening a restaurant that sells sake. But for Richardson, a brewmaster who owns Lyn-Lake’s Herkimer brewpub and runs a small company that sells a carbonated energy drank of his own creation called TripleCaff, that wasn’t enough.

He wanted — no, needed — to make it himself.

So Richardson immersed himself in the sake world, became a certified sake sommelier, and planned moto-i. It took him awhile to clear the bureaucratic hurdles associated with brewing an often-misunderstood drink — “I had educate everybody, really, from the federal government on down,” he said — but he finally lined up the last permits earlier this year.

Shortly before moto-i opened, Richardson put his staff through a three-day sake boot camp that included videos, slideshows, and plenty of blind taste tests. And what he saw he hopes he’ll see replicated with his customers.

“Halfway through it, their eyes started to open up,” he said. “They’re so incredibly excited to learn about something that, frankly, might have been intimidating before.”

Moto-i is open from noon to 2 a.m. seven days a week. For more information, call 821-6262 or visit

Stationery shop pulls up paper, heads east

Uptown card and stationery shop Letterbox Creative closed in October and its owners are headed back to New York City.

Letterbox owners and New York transplants, Kimberley Yurkiewicz and Zach Barocas, opened at 2741 Hennepin Ave. S. in spring 2006.

“We’ve had many customers come in to tell us lovely things about how sad they are to lose us,” Yurkiewicz said. “It’s overwhelming, frankly, and just so kind. We’re very lucky and incredibly appreciative.”

Leaving the Uptown neighborhood will be difficult, she said.

“I love the different mix of people in the neighborhood,” she said. “I like the indie businesses, and I love the proximity to the lakes. I even like the informality, which might be surprising coming from a stationery and etiquette junkie.”  

Yurkiewicz said she and Barocas are ready to be a part of the New York lifestyle again. “Plain and simple—we miss living there,” she said.

One of the advantages of moving Letterbox to New York City will be the increase in window shoppers, Yurkiewicz said.

“The lack of pedestrian traffic here is most pervasive,” she said. “In New York, everyone is walking from one place to another. That lends itself to great window shopping, discovering new stores, being aware of what’s out there and a different consumer perspective altogether.”

They plan to open Letterbox in Brooklyn by 2010, but have not found the perfect location yet. The store will feature more luxury and design-forward brands, as well as more personalized stationery.  

Emily Stickler contributed to this report.

We’re always looking to spotlight business in Southwest, so if you know of (or if you’re the owner) any business opening, closing or moving in your neighborhood, we’d love to hear about it. Please contact reporter Brian Voerding at 436-5082 or at [email protected]