During a recent tasting at Encore’s hip Asian restaurant Andrea’s, a different premium sake accompanied each of executive chef Joe Elevado’s courses. They’d been selected by sommelier Melissa Nguyen, and as she poured them, she explained their subtleties and how they complement the food. As a sake aficionado who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy the beverage with some of the nation’s top sake experts, I couldn’t help but be impressed by her knowledge and her selections. But that’s not surprising. Nguyen is one of only 180 Level II sake professionals in the world, as certified by the Sake Education Council. And she is hell-bent on changing the negative image many people still have of Japan’s national drink.
“The challenge and the excitement is getting guests away from that first [unpleasant] experience they may have had,” she says. “I try to explain it as a beautiful glass of white wine that has those subtle nuances, those complexities, those aromatics. I try to get them to think in that mindset, as opposed to it being served hot, and being painful going down or throwing it into your beer glass.”
This is why 34-year-old Nguyen makes it a point to interact with her guests as much as possible. “When guests are open-minded to trying something different, then it’s just kind of fine-tuning and finding out exactly what it is they’re looking for. I’ll ask the styles of beverages that they would drink other than sake.”
And no matter what that is, Nguyen can usually relate, thanks to her extensive and varied training: She also holds certifications as a beer server and tequila specialist. She’s served as a sommelier at Caesars Palace, and assisted in coordinating the award-winning wine list at the three-Michelin-starred Joël Robuchon in MGM Grand. Yet immediately before joining the team at Andrea’s, she began tending bar at Downtown hot spots Atomic Liquors and the Gold Spike, and occasionally still picks up shifts at both when she has the time. Needless to say, the clientele at the latter are a bit different from those at the former.
“At Atomic, because there’s such a phenomenal beer and cocktail program, [customers] are always very intrigued about what new taps are coming on, and the cocktails, which are very seasonal,” she says of one side gig. A few blocks away at the Gold Spike, the clientele is “very straightforward and simple,” preferring Fireball shots and Adios Motherfuckers.
Such varied experiences serve the sommelier well when she’s working the floor at Andrea’s, where the customers on any given night might include celebrities, club kids on their way to Surrender or Encore Beach Club, well-heeled high-rollers or random Strip partiers.
“I always think of the word ‘adaptability,’” Nguyen says of her responsibilities to such a diverse audience. “And I think that’s so huge in our industry, to have that type of intuition and be able to provide the service that people are looking for. So many different walks of life come to our city, dine in our restaurants and go to our bars. So it’s a matter of acclimating and adapting to what they’re looking for.”
If what you’re looking for is sake, whether you’re a newbie or a longtime fan, Nguyen will undoubtedly find one among her 40-plus labels to suit your taste.