Grains of Truth

Poppy Den nourishes Relyn Timbal’s passion for sake

Growing up in Hawaii, Relyn Timbal fell in love with the Japanese culture that pervades her homeland. At Kamehameha Schools, the private college prep she attended from kindergarten through high school, she chose Japanese as her language elective, hoping this would lead to class trips across the Pacific. It did, and 15 years later, Timbal’s eyes still light up when recalling the welcome she received from one rural Japanese middle school. “They literally shut down the last three periods to hold this huge assembly for this one girl from Hawaii.”

Timbal’s passion for sake grew from this love of Japanese culture to where she is now the general manager and house sake expert at Poppy Den, the new Asian gastropub in Tivoli Village.

Timbal, 32, began working in Las Vegas restaurants as a food runner at Rumjungle when her family moved here in 2000. By 2007, she was managing China Grill, where she was tasked with revamping the restaurant’s sake menu. This is where her sake education began. She sought out sake vendors. Then, with a Japanese translator—“It’s a whole different language,” she says of sake terminology—she attended sake shows and private tastings, where brewmasters from all over Japan lectured on the individualities of their own blends.

Today, the Poppy Den manager shares her knowledge and passion with both the staff and customers, and she’s crafted a sake menu to pair with chef Angelo Sosa’s simple, but flavorful, Asian-inspired dishes.

“Sake is pure rice,” Timbal says. In Poppy Den’s country-chic dining area of delicate and mismatched china, she gives tableside tutorials, rhyming off sake’s four ingredients: rice, water, koji (the spore used in the fermentation process) and love. “It sounds a little cheesy but there is an explanation to it,” she says of that last ingredient, which encapsulates the careful choices brewmasters make when deciding upon water types or milling processes.

Poppy Den’s menu includes seven of Timbal’s favorite cold sakes. And they should be served cold. “It takes away from the flavor profile when you heat it up,” she says—but she’s hoping to grow the list to as many as 40.

Downstairs, in the airy casual dining room, she might recommend a refreshing glass of a medium-bodied junmai ginjo (rice grains are milled to 60 percent or less of their original size) to complement the tomato soup, which Sosa has jazzed up with Korean chili sauce, then topped with a curried whipped cream.

In the upper Den area, the rich décor of deep red leathers and seductive black calls for a more substantial beverage. “Junmai is heavier on the palate, earthier,” Timbal suggests; grains are milled to 70 percent or less of original size. Poppy Den’s garden patio is the perfect place to enjoy a lighter junmai daigingo (milled to 50 percent or less), perhaps with the sweet and spicy flavors of the Poppy Den’s charred miso salmon and shishito pepper dish.

“You really can’t pair sake incorrectly,” Timbal admits, because the flavors aren’t as pronounced as they are in wine. The more difficult task is educating the staff in Japanese pronunciation and persuading the customers to give it a try. “I can sit here all day and talk about the milling process,” she says, “but unless you have it in front of you and you’re drinking it, you just can’t know.” With that, she reaches for a sake bottle to pour, and her eyes light up all over again.

Relyn Timbal’s Seven Sakes of Spring

Good Fortune, Horin, Junmai Daiginjo, $80. Notes of silky pear and cantaloupe with a clean finish; for those looking to really appreciate sake for what it is. 720 milliliters.

Cherry Bouquet, Dewazakura Oka, Ginjo, $27. Soft, balanced, more floral than fruit; ladies having a light lunch comes to mind. 300 milliliters.

Champion, Ozeki, Nigori, $28. Whimsical and cloudy, with a hint of honey. 375 milliliters.

Pure Dawn, Shimizu No Mai, Junmai Ginjo, $36. Fun, floral and fresh with a wonderfully smooth finish; a nice way to introduce someone to sake. 300 milliliters.

Banzai Bunny Yuzu, Sparkling, $28. It truly cannot get any more spring than this; think aromatic citrus mimosa. 300 milliliters.

Happiness, Jokigen, Junmai Ginjo, $31. Rice-forward with a medium-dry finish; pure sake flavor at its boldest. 300 milliliters.

Heart of Oak, Tamagawa, Tokubetsu Junmai, $61. Full-flavored, smoky and earthy; for those who are looking to be slightly daring. 720 milliliters.