Fuglen Sake 101: Natsuzake – Summer Sake Flight

When the hot, humid days of summer arrive, brewers around the country wrap up production for the year and take the opportunity to enjoy a well deserved break. By now, the first batches of new spring sake have already been released, and the rest is settling & aging in tanks, so the market goes a bit quiet as everyone waits expectantly for the release of the year’s fully matured sake in October. But fear not, there is still plenty of great sake to look forward to during the summer season. It’s around this of year that pretty blue bottles of lively and intensely fruity summer namazake begin to appear in the refrigerators of good sakaya. These sake tend to be light, refreshing and, due to lower alcohol levels, eminently quaffable – perfect for quelling the meanest summer thirst.

This month at Fuglen, ICHI FOR THE MICHI has selected three breezy summer sake for you dive into.

Fuglen Summer Sake Flight

石鎚  夏純米 槽搾り

Ishizuchi Natsu Junmai Funeshibori*

Clean and refreshing, with Ishizuchi’s characteristic spring water-like minerality. An aromatic ginjo nose, with a light body that spreads nicely across your palate. Beautifully balanced, with notes of sweet rice, flinty stone, and a lingering crisp acidity. Slow-pressed with a traditional wooden fune to produce a fine-grained texture.

Ishizuchi Natsuzake

石鎚酒造 (愛媛県)Ishizuchi Shuzo (Ehime) 

Ishizuchi Shuzo is a small, family run brewery founded which was founded in 1920, near Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture. The name of the shuzo comes from Ishizuchisan, a mountain significant for being the tallest in the Shikoku region, as well as the source of the rich spring water which is used to create their sake.

This tiny brewery is run by four members of the Ochi family, who devote themselves to producing a small amount of high quality sake made with time-consuming, labour intensive techniques. Their sake is fermented for 40 days at a low temperature, then slow-pressed using a slow-pressed with a traditional wooden fune press. The result of this careful process is a finely textured sake with a smooth, clean flavour.

Sake rice: Locally grown Shizuku Hime
Rice polishing rate: 60%
Nihonshudo: +3
Acidity: 1.7
Alcohol: 16%

原料米: 愛媛県産 しずく媛
精米歩合: 60%
日本酒度:+3
酸度: 1.7度
アルコール度: 16%

*Funeshibori 槽しぼり – Sake that has been pressed in a traditional wooden ‘fine’ box press.

Taka Natsu Junmai Happo Nigori** Namashu

貴 夏純米 発泡 にごり* 生酒

Lively and delicious! This happo-nigori’s light effervescence and cloudy appearance is reinforced by a fragrance of sweet Calpis and fresh grapes. On the palate the gentle sweet rice flavour swells and then pulls back to leave a refreshing dry finish. It’s delicate bubbles and nicely pitched acidity create a light, cool and refreshing summery feel.  - the perfect partner for convivial drinks on a hot summers night. 

Serving suggestion: Enjoy in a champagne flute, and pair with grilled meat & vegetables.

Taka Happo Nigori

Nagayama Honke (Yamaguchi) - 永山本家 (山口県)

Located in Ube City, at the south-western tip of Honshu, family run Nagayama Honke has been brewing its sake since 1888, with the mineral rich water from Shimofuriyama.

Under the leadership of fourth generation kuramoto, Takahiro Nagayama, the brewery is moving forward with a new, progressive vision. He is also one of the growing number of young kuramoto who are taking on the duel responsibilities of being a brewery’s managing director, as well as its master brewer.

Committed to producing only junmai sake, made with the best of the regions natural resources, Nagayama-san keeps production yields low in order to the quality high. The brewery is invested in supporting local agriculture, and contracts local rice farmers to supply sakamai for the brewery. Nagayama-san has also turned his hand to farming – cultivating his own Yamada Nishiki in the fields that surround the kura.

“Taka” (meaning noble) takes its name from the first kanji of the man who created it. The stylised font of the 貴 character, which Nagayama-san wrote himself, reflects his strength, passion and slightly wild personality. Since launching the label in 2001, Taka has become one of the darlings of the sake world, and for good reason. Its characteristic mellow flavour, and nicely chiselled acidity, favors wide range of delicious cuisine, and lends itself to a night of delicious fun.

Sake rice: Yamada Nishiki
Rice polishing rate: 60%
Yeast: No. 9
Nihonshudo: +-0
Acidity: 1.6
Alcohol: 15~16%

原料米: 山田錦
精米歩合: 60%
酵母: 協会9号系
日本酒度: +-0
酸度 1.6
アルコール度 15〜16%

**Happo Nigori 発泡にごり – Sparkling cloudy sake. Sake that has some residual rice lees – ori -remaining, and has undergone secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Tamagawa Ice Breaker Junmaiginjo Muroka Nama Genshu***

玉川  Ice Breaker  純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒

Ice Breaker by name, Heat Breaker by nature. Don’t be mislead by its fresh, pretty fragrance, this rich and flavoursome muroka nama genshu has plenty of punch. Delicious straight out of the fridge, or it enjoy over ice to soften the impact of its amped up alcohol level. Revitalising, tasty and eminently quaffable – the perfect thirst-quencher for the hanabi & summer festival session.

Serving suggestion: On the rocks. Perfect for enjoying with barbecued fare.

Tamagawa Ice Breaker

Kinoshita Shuzo (Kyoto) - 木下酒造 (京都県)

Kinoshita is an extraordinary brewery. And that’s not so much due to the award-winning Tamagawa sake they produce, or the old school brewing techniques they use, – as it is for their toji (master brewer). Philip Harper has the distinction of being the first and only non-Japanese to attain the rank of master brewer. He’s also responsible for producing Tamagawa’s remarkably intense brews.

Although there may have been some suspicion (and expectation of failure) of a foreigner brewing the country’s national drink, since taking on the role of toji at Tamagawa’s, in 2007, Harper has won over the sake industry and the nation with his flavour driven, masculine sake.

The brewery’s mission is take fine rice, grown by farmers they have a direct relationship with to create their sake. The distinct flavour, for which Tamagawa is so renowned, is derived from Harper’s use of traditional brewing technique called ‘shizen shikomi’ or ‘stontaneous fermentation’, a natural brewing preparation used during the Edo Period, but which is not widely used today. By combining the best natural resources with labour intensive brewing techniques, and an exceptional level of skill, Tamagawa aims to brew great sake with integrity, heart and soul & to strive to produce sake that will delight and inspire.

Sake rice: (Koji) Nihonbare, (Kakemai) Gyohakumangoku
Rice polishing rate: (Koji) 50%, (Kakemai) 60%
Yeast: No. 9
Nihonshudo: -2
Alcohol: 16~17%

原料米: (麹)日本晴、(掛) 五百万石
精米歩合:  (麹)50%、(掛)60%
酵母: 協会9号系
日本酒度: -2
アルコール度 16〜17%

***Muroka 無濾過 – Uncharcoal filtered

Nama 生 – Unpasteurised (fresh) sake

Genshu 原酒 – Undiluted sake

NOTE: As always, you can supplement your flight, or replace any of the above sake, with Norway’s own premium sake: Nøgne Ø “Nadakajima” Junmai, brewed with Hokkaido grown Ginpu sake rice – developed especially for cold climate conditions.

Shonzui 祥瑞 – Raising the (Natural) Wine Bar

Bio-organic, vin du naturel, shizenha, hipster juice – whatever the epithet – like them or not, natural wine is here to stay. IMG_6640 There has been much media fanfare surrounding the bevy of new natural wine bistros that have sprung up around the city; most notably Ahiru Store, Beard, Standing Bar Waltz, and – my local – Le Verre Vole. But this boom may didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor did it happen overnight. It was the result of pioneers like wine importer Francois Dumas and Shinsaku Katsuyama, a renowned restauranteur and bon vivant, whose passion and forethought broke open the market and brought this previously undervalued genre to the Japanese public’s attention.  In fact, if it weren’t for the efforts of these early Japanese enthusiasts some of the labels we enjoy today wouldn’t be on the market. In the early 90′s, when natural winemakers were struggling to find a market for their wine in France, it was Japanese wine buyers who came to the rescue, buying up to 80% of some of wineries stock, thereby establishing Japan as the biggest importer of natural wine in the world and saving cash strapped winemakers from certain financial ruin. IMG_7736 It would seem that the significance of these early vanguards is not lost on the new generation of bistro du vin owners. When I asked Le Verre Vole’s Ryo-san where he choses to dine out on one of his rare nights off, the answer was emphatic: Shonzui – a Roppongi institution run by the aforementioned Katsuyama-san.

Established in 1993, on the ‘right’ side of Roppongi (away from the sleazy strip clubs and gaijin watering holes of Gaienmai-dori), Shonzui has long held a reputation for its excellent wine selection and hearty bistro fare. In days of old, Katsuyama-san, whose unassuming and jovial character belies this incredible wine knowledge, worked the floor as both host and sommelier, serving rustic dishes inspired from his his extensive travels throughout the wine regions of France. festivin2012_0823_MwebThese days he has handed these duties over to a young talented team, so he can devote time to his new Chinese BBQ venture, “Lucky”, promoting natural wine through his Festivin project, and pursuing his other great love, jazz. Shonzui interior On a chilly spring evening, Ryo-san rallied the troops for an evening at his favourite dining room. We were a curious multi-national and multi-generational coterie, comprised of la families Le Verre Vole (including the angelic, 9 month old, Anjou) the babes of Standing Bar Waltz (wife and newborn – sadly Papa had to work), two Frenchmen, a Norwegian, and yours truly. We were warmly greeted by the dapper maitre d’, Tsubo-san, and immediately treated to a bottle of wine to kick off our festivities. IMG_7689 Complements of the house: a bottle of Gilles et Catherine Verge’s Pétillant Naturel Bulle à Zéro, from Viré, in the Mâconnais district of southern Burgundy. The vividly yellow appearance and slightly oxidised apple aromas of this semi-sparkling chardonnay were more reminiscent of a Jura-style than something I would associate with the south of Burgundy. I was later to learn that the Verges, who only make san soufre wine due to sulphur allergies, lift the lids of the vats during the vinification process to encourage oxidisation and to allow nutty flavours and cider aromas to develop. Is it me, or do the bourgeoisie seem to have terribly delicate systems these days? All cynicism aside, the zesty lemon honey and limestone flavours combined with a soft effervescency made it a pleasant enough start to the night. Kajiki maguroThe blackboard menu lists an array of simple, unpretentious and unabashedly meat-driven bistrot fare. But in all my visits I’ve never ordered from it. Instead, I seek inspiration from the counter, where a selection of proteins stand resplendent: whole Bresse chickens trussed and ready for roasting, enormous steaks of aged wagyu, and, on this evening, a huge cross section of kajiki-maguro (swordfish) – a welcome sight to someone with pescatarian tendencies. After preferences were sort, we sat back and relaxed as the kitchen went about plying us with plate after heaping plate of flavoursome rustic food. IMG_7690First up, “The Boucherie’s Plate”. Amongst the charcuterie assortment: roast pork, parma ham, roast pigeon hearts, terrine de campagne, cornichons, and pork rilette, which we liberally heaped onto crusty slices of freshly baked campagne bread. IMG_7710Les Vieilles Vignes des Blanderies 2006, a beautifully composed Chenin Blanc from Domaine Mark Angeli, in Anjou. Like the Verges, Angeli has demoted all of his wine to the humble ‘Vin de Table’ status in protest to the appellation’s rigid regulations and refusal to reduce the use of pesticides in the region. In fact, this became an emerging theme throughout the night. Kajiki saladThe kajiki-maguro appeared table-side in the form of a protein-packed salad made with rocket and home cured sardines. It was as generous in flavour as it was in proportion. IMG_7723Our lively conversation was briefly interrupted when a pot of live lobster was brought to the table for our inspection. Would this be to our liking? Indeed it would! Lobster Quickly dispatched by the chef, the lobster, along with two of its friends, returned grilled with a liberal saucing of herb butter. But where were the claws? Lobster gratinThey arrived atop a wickedly rich and decadent dish of oven roasted potato gratin. Swoon! EponaAnother Chenin, and yet another Vin de Table: Domaine Griottes’ Epona, from Lambert du Lattay, in the Loire. Made by Patrick Desplats and Sebastien Dervieux, two wild and wooly rebels of the natural wine movement, who espouse an ultra-traditionalist non-intervention method; no SO2 or additives, and  wild yeast fermentation. The Epona charmed with its subtle bouquet and fresh, mineral taste. A nice counterbalance to the rich creaminess of the lobster gratin. IMG_3865   An old friend from the North: Domaine Gérard Schueller. Somewhat of a firebrand, Bruno Schueller’s winemaking philosophy is based on bio-dynamics, but his idiosyncratic style and aversion to regulations, particularly those of the INAO, mean that his wine seems to defy easy classification. His minimal intervention approach; using only a tiny amount of SO2 at bottling, as well as lengthy fermentation & maturation periods results in vivid, lively wine with nice balance & depth. I’ve also noticed a bit of bottle variation  - possibly due to poor storage conditions post-dispatch from the winery.

Having enjoyed the Gewurtztraminer & Riesling from Schueller in the past, I was interested to try the Pinot Noir. Pale ruby in hue, with an abundance of fresh raspberry & rhubarb aromas. Slightly petillant with bright acidity and a distinct minerality – this is a great quaffing wine for a summer bbq… but sadly, lacked the body & structure to stand up to our hearty steak dinner. WagyuHoly wagyu! We were presented with two strapping sirloin cuts of aged Yamagata-gyu, each weighing around 900 grams. The red meat deprived Norwegian literally started purring at this stage. Steak Frites Steak Frites 2 IMG_7735La vache! Two heaving boards of perfectly rendered sirloin, cooked to the rare side of medium-rare, with simple accompaniments of duck fat roasted potatoes and dressed leaves. A reverent hush fell across our table as members savoured the pleasure of each flavour-releasing chew. From all accounts it was a succulent flavour-bomb of well cooked cow. Tsubo-san The mothers and babes bid us farewell, and with their departure the games began – Tsubo-san acting as our incorrigible enabler. Sensing our desire for something more robust, Tsubo-san appeared with a selection of more hearty varietals. After giving a detailed and eloquent description of each wine, a clear winner emerged… Les Balatilles Les Baltailles! This san soufre gamay, from the Beaujolis vineyard Domaine Phillipe Jambon, was an absolute stunner: rich and intense with dried fruit, bitter chocolate and umami flavours. In this instance its ‘vin de table’ moniker works well, because has it been labelled ‘Beaujolais’ one might have expected something much lighter and less structured in the glass. 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière As with namazake, I find that when you drink natural wine the aroma and flavour are masked by the haze of it’s fresh unpasteurised character. I register that it’s a natural wine, rather than get any sense of terroir or grape. Not so with this 2008 Domaine Léon Barral Faugères Valinière. Clean and well balanced on the nose, with plum, dark berry and pleasant mineral notes. The flavour was a revelation. Made with 80% Mourvedre and 20% Syrah, and aged two years in barrel, it was full and lush on the palate, with nicely integrated tannins and acidity. The clarity and precision of this wine are a testament to the craftsmanship of Didier Barral, a biodynamic vintner, who eschews the use of sulphur, filtering and fining. Definitely worth seeking out. Bacchanalia As the evening progressed, and more bottles were produced, the bacchanalia increased and soon the line between patrons and staff blurred. We took the ‘cheese course’ standing at the bar, the chef shaving slices of aged comte onto our hands in between slugs from his wine glass. Some Roquefort appeared and immediately disappeared, along with bowls of Shizuoka strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar. And on and on the wine kept following… IMG_3867 At 2am, red-cheeked and full-bellied, we reluctantly bid adieu to our generous hosts. It had been an evening of good honest food, vivid wine and exceptional hospitality – a night with good friends that will be indelibly etched in my memory.

At some point during the festivities, a marker had been produced and a drunken message was scrawled amongst the tributes on the wall. “Forget Michelin,” someone had written in wobbly cursive script, “this is the real star dining experience.” Someone may have been seriously sloshed, but as the saying goes, “In vino veritas!”

UPDATE: Sadly, Tsubo-san has departed from Shonzui. You will find him at Le Cabaret, working the floor with his usual charm.

 SHONZUI 

03-3405-7478

Sake: A Sense of Place | Bar Zingaro

ICHI FOR THE MICHI is pleased to announce that I will be holding a regular sake presentations at Bar Zingaro, in Nakano, from May 10th, 2014.

The evening will begin with a presentation of the theme Sake: A Sense of Place, followed by a guided tasting of sake from seven innovative breweries. We will also be serving a selection of cheeses and otsumami snacks for your enjoyment. Tickets cost ¥1,500, and includes all food & sake served during the event – bargain!

Due to limited space, reservations are essential. Bookings can be made directly with Bar Zingaro, or tthrough their Facebook page.

Click on the image for more information.

Sake A Sense of Place

 

Fuglen Sake 101: Sakamai

When spring arrives, sake brewers around the country wind up production for the year, and farmers being the labour-intensive process of planting the rice for next year’s brew. But while sake can be made from table rice, only premium sake can be brewed from sakamai: rice which has been specifically developed for sake making.

There are around 100 different types of sake rice in use today, each with its own unique characteristics that will have a significant affect on the taste of the final product.

In this season’s flight we will compare sake brewed from three iconic grains: the majestic Yamada Nishiki; the pristine Gohyakumangoku; and, the granddaddy of them both, Omachi – the only pure strain of sake rice in Japan.

Aizumusume Junmai

Aizumusume Junmai - 会津娘 純米

A classic expression of Aizu grown Gohyakumangoku rice. Fresh yet restrained fragrance. Light bodied with a calm, clear flavour which spreads across the palate, then departs with a clean finish.

Takahashi Shōsaku Shuzo, Fukushima-ken – 高橋庄作酒造、福島県 

Sake rice: Locally grown Gohyakumangoku
Rice polishing rate: 60%
Nihonshudo: +2~+3
Acidity: 1.4~ 1.6
Alcohol: 15%

原料米: 会津産 五百万石
精米歩合: 60%
日本酒度:+2~+3
酸度: 1.4~1.6度
アルコール度: 15%

Jikon Junmaiginjo Yamada Nishiki

Jikon Junmaiginjō Yamada Nishiki Muroka Nama Genshu

而今 純米吟醸 山田錦 無濾過生原酒*

Yamada Nishiki’s rich, fragrant character gets amplified in this charming Junmaiginjō. Ripe melon & green apple aromas. A sweet, well-rounded flavour, enlivened by pleasant acidity, and a faint bitterness that lingers in the mouth.

Kiyasho Shuzō, Mie-ken - 木屋正酒造, 三重県

Sake rice: Yamada Nishiki locally grown in Iga, Mie-ken.
Rice polishing rate: 50%
Yeast: No. 9
Nihonshudo: +1.0
Acidity: 1.2
Alcohol: 16.5%

原料米:伊賀産山田錦
精米歩合:50%
酵母: 9号
日本酒度:+1
酸度:1.6
アミノ酸度:1.2

Kaze no Mori Omachi

Kaze no Mori Junmaiginjō Shibori Hana Muroka Nama Genshu.

風の森 純米吟醸しぼり華* 無濾過生原酒

Kaze no Mori harnesses the rich, fruity, earthiness that is unique to Omachi in this superb Junmai. Lively & fragrant, with refined acidity and a smooth, round flavour that wraps the palate.

* ‘Shibori Hana’ is Kaze no Mori’s moniker for Arabashiri; a term linked to the pressing process. When the moromi (fermenting mash) is placed cloth bags and laid into a tradition fune box press, sake will immediately begin to run out due to the weight of the bags – without any pressure being applied by the press. This run-off sake is known as “arabashiri,” which means “rough run.” Kaze no Mori believes it is the most lively and fragrant section of pressed sake, hence the more flowery epithet.

Yucho Shuzo, Nara-ken – 油長酒造、奈良県

Sake rice: Omachi grown in Bizen, Okayama-ken.
Rice polishing rate: 60%
Yeast: No. 7
Nihonshudo: -4.0
Acidity: 2.0
Alcohol: 17.5%

原料米: 備前 雄町
精米歩合: 60%
酵母: 協会7号系
日本酒度: -4.0
酸度 2.0
アルコール度 17.5%

NOTE: As always, you can supplement your flight, or replace any of the above sake, with Norway’s own premium sake: Nøgne Ø “Nadakajima” Junmai or Yamahai Junmai, brewed with Hokkaido grown Ginpu sake rice – developed especially for cold climate conditions.

Sushi Sora, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Tokyo

Sushi Sora view

A sushi dinner in the lofty environs of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, paired with sake from a menu compiled by a champion sommelier: my expectations were as high as the restaurant’s 38th floor location.

Sushi Sora had enjoyed a blitz of media coverage throughout the summer, with superlative laden ‘reviews’ illustrated with beautifully composed images gracing the pages of advertorial magazines and “pay for content” international travel blogs. As tempting as it seemed, the cynic in me was not so easily swayed – I know a marketing push when I see one. Despite my reservations, Sushi Sora had the endorsement of my sushi senpai, Ninisix, who had enjoyed several lunches there and was keen to return for a dinner omakase with lashings of sake. Needless to say, I leap at the chance to join her.

The restaurant certainly delivers on wow factor. This is the epitome of lux-dining. With a swish of the sliding door, you are drawn into an elegantly conceived space with dark onyx walls and a sweeping view across the Tokyo skyline. But for me, the star attraction is not the illuminated spectacle of nearby Tokyo Skytree, but the elegant 8-seat blonde wood counter top made from a 350 year old cypress tree.

IMG_4238
Yuji Imaizumi (pictured) is the chef in charge of operations at Sushi Sora. Unfortunately, as the restaurant was fully booked, we were only able to secure seats in front of his assistant, Hironobu Sato, who seemed to be lumped with serving the foreign contingent. Our chef turned out to be a very friendly chap who, despite his apparent youth, had an impressive resume of experience; beginning in the kaiseki kitchens of Kyoto, before apprenticing at elite Ginza sushi shops Tsubaki and Ookawara.
IMG_4218
A present? The menu? Neither, in fact. I unwrapped the origami creation to discover a napkin. An elegant detail.
IMG_5436
The assistant manager, Kaoru Izuha, was the recent winner of the Kikizakeshi (sake sommelier) World Championship – an enormous feat for someone so young. She has used her impressive knowledge to compile sake list of 25 labels that pair best with sushi. I was interested to see that she had chosen to arrange the list by sakamai rather than grade – a nice touch given that rice is as fundamental to sake as it is to sushi.
2013-07-29 00.06.12
Sadly, she was not working the night we visited, but her well-trained staff were well versed in the range, and very generous with complementary tastings.

2013-07-29 09.56.38

We settled on the Masami ‘Sanka’ Junmaiginjo (Yamada Nishiki 45%), Miyasaka Shuzo – Nagano. 真澄 純米大吟醸「山花」(山田錦 45%), 宮坂醸造 – 長野  The complex fragrance of fresh green herb and ‘mountain flowers’ followed through in clean, refreshing flavour.
2013-07-29 09.56.39-1The vessel you drink from not only has an enormous effect on your enjoyment of sake, but also your perception of its taste. However, apart from specialist bars and izakaya, sake still is almost always served in tiny ochoko cups. While these are perfect for liberals sips and top-ups around an izakaya table, they do justice to the beverage they hold; their small dimensions restrict aromas from developing on the surface and make it difficult to impart the subtleties of refined grades. So it was nice touch to be offered a choice.
2013-07-29 09.56.39
There are three courses available at dinner (¥15,000~¥25,000), or you can order a la carte – as the blinged out baby oligarchs were doing to our right. After conferring with the chef, we decided on the ¥25K omakase, the only course that uni was offered in, with a request to focus on cured white fish, hikarimono and ‘red meat’ fish.
2013-08-12 05.59.58
In Japanese the word sora means sky – a fitting epithet for a sushi-ya with sweeping views of the Tokyo skyline. Sora is also used in the name of the Japanese fava bean, soramame, as its pods grow in the direction of the sky. As a cute tie-in with the shop’s name, we began with a chilled soup of soramame dashi. Velvety smooth, with the delicate sweet flavour of the bean supported by a subtle smokiness from the katsuobushi and kombu dashi. A delightful and refreshing start.
2013-08-12 05.58.50
Mizunasu (water aubergine) begins to appear on menus in the summer months, when it is enjoyed as a raw crudité. Ours was served with its traditional accompaniment, sumiso; a sauce made with white miso, sugar, vinegar and mirin. A fresh taste of the season.
2013-07-29 00.31.50
A heavenly fragrance filled the air as our chef grated fresh Shizuoka wasabi for our next course.
2013-08-12 05.58.17
An assorted tsumami plate of shiroshita-garei (marbled sole/flounder), from Oita, and iwashi (sardine cured in vinegar). The garei was exceptionally good; cured to perfection so that the tight sinew in the meat had softened and the kombu had imparted a soft fragrance into the flesh. The iwashi, however, was ghastly. Despite being cured in vinegar it had a funky, off fish smell. Shudder. At least we had solved the mystery of the unpleasant odour in the air.
IMG_5528

Shiroshita-garei no kimo (flounder liver), engawa (not pictured) and tako no ashi (braised octopus legs). Disaster! I was so engrossed in our conversation with the chef that I forgot to document the plate! Seeing the stricken look on my face, the chef kindly tried to find another piece of the engawa that I had scoffed, but alas, ours were the only pieces.

Engawa is the thin muscle of the dorsal fin which is located on the either side of spotted sole/halibut. This part of the fish gets more of a workout than the rest of the body, so the texture of the meat is chewier; the flavour more developed. It also has a higher fat content which makes it a prized delicacy at sushi-ya. At Sora, the fatty ribbons of engawa had been braised in sweet soy marinade, so that the meat unbelievably soft and more concentrated in flavour.

I have a particular fondness for fish liver, so was delighted to try the rich, silky smooth kimo of the garei we had enjoyed earlier.

The simmered octopus tentacles were less delightful. I found their slimy, gelatinous texture and the overly sweet marinade off-putting.

IMG_4188
Our final tsumami course consisted of Meiji maguro aburi (Aomori) and aji (Nagasaki). I am probably one of the worst offenders of eating unsustainable fish stocks, but even I had a quick intake of breath when I learned that the weight of this baby tuna was a mere 6 kilos. That’s a ‘throw back’ in my books. Sadly, this poor little creature had died in vain; the sinew was taut and difficult to chomp through and I was left an unpleasant, congealed fat aftertaste, which makes me think it was served too cold. There were definitely some problems with storage/refrigeration here. The aji, on the other hand, was very good.
IMG_4358
While the tsumami courses had been a bit hit and miss, Ninisix assured me that their nigiri was very good. The koshihikari rice they use is aged for 2 years, and seasoned with a blend of old red vinegar and kasuzu (vinegar made from sake lees).
IMG_5445

For the nigiri section of the meal we changed to a tokkuri of Hokusetsu Junmai (Gohyakumangoku – Kōji: 55% – Kakemai: 65%), Hokusetsu Shuzō, Sado Island, Niigata. 北雪 純米 (五百万石 – 麹: 55% – 掛: 65%), 北雪酒造 - 新潟県佐渡市.

Its restrained aroma, crisp and refreshing flavour followed by a clean, dry finish make it unmistakably a Niigata sake. I’m not particularly drawn to the tanrei-karaguchi style, but it does pair well with sushi.

2013-07-29 00.22.10
Shinko (baby kohada) from Shizuoka. Unlike ‘promotion fish’ like buri, gizzard shard decreases in value as it ages – a ‘demotion fish’ if you will. The fish of the spring season’s shinko causes a flurry if activity in sushi-ya, and the huge demand and limited supply means that prices are astronomical. Sato-san arranged the tiny butterflied fillets before us, each were the about the size of a small lime.
IMG_5429
Beautifully presented in intertwining ribbons, the shinko was soft, fragrant and delicately flavoured. Sadly, we found the shari to be overly soft and, again, the temperature too cool.
2013-07-29 09.56.50
While the foreigners next to us, who were eating the standard nigiri course, were being served magurozuke (marinated akami), our tuna was cut fresh from a block of hon-maguro, landed near Aomori.
IMG_5433
The akami was rich and fragrant, though my appreciation of it was slightly let down by the memory of chef clumsily dropping the nigiri on the counter as he was forming it.
2013-07-29 09.56.54-2
A seasonal offering of kisu aburi kombujime. Lightly seared (aburi), the whiting had been marinated between sheets of kombu (kombujime) to impart a delicate sweet flavour in the fish.
2013-07-29 00.26.14
We were the only customers eating the omakase course, so all eyes where on us when a box of Ezo murasaki uni (purple sea urchin), from Yagishiri Island, Hokkaido, was presented for our inspection. The ‘中’ kanji refers to its middle size while the ’1′ denotes its grade (the highest). It may just be internet rumor, but I have read that Sushi Sora uses the same uni supplier as Sukiyabashi Jiro.
IMG_5435
My hastily snapped photo does not do justice to the glorious flavour of this uni gunkan. Meltingly soft, rich and creamy, it was the highlight of the meal.
We were once again offered to choose our preference of neta for the final round. However, as we were underwhelmed by the rice, we opted to take the rest of the course as tsumami. For a nigiri maniac like Ninisix to opt out of continuing the sushi course, was a clear signal that things were very much amiss.
2013-07-29 09.57.00-1
The kuruma-ebi kimizu oboro zuke (Japanese prawn cured in sweet vinegar with minced egg yolk), was pre-cooked and served cold, so lacked the juiciness of prawns prepared à la minute. The awabi (abalone simmered and finished with a brush of tsume sauce) was good; the kohada okay. All in all, a fairly lackluster finish to an expensive omakase course.
2013-07-29 09.56.59
It must be said that throughout the evening our food was served on a wonderful array of plate ware. The final savoury offering of miso and junsai broth, was served in an elegant urushi-nuri (lacquer coated) bowl.
2013-07-29 09.57.01

We finished with the Dassai 39 Junmai Daigingō (Yamada Nishiki 39%), from Asahi Shuzō, Yamaguchi. 獺祭 純米大吟醸 磨き三割九分 (山田錦 39%), 旭酒造 – 山口県 - my favourite of their range. Befitting a sake of this refinement, we chose to have it served in champagne flutes. Lightly fragranced with notes of banana, melon and nashi pear, it has a clean, balanced flavour with an elegant dry finish.

For a sake menu that professes to be a selection of the best sake from small, family run kura (that explanation was only written in English, by the way), I had to laugh when I saw Kubota – the largest sake producer in Niigata – on the list. It’s also worth noting that Dassai, Masumi and Hokusetsu, which are indeed a family run kura, focus a lot of their sales on overseas markets. In fact, most of the sake on their list is readily available abroad. For example, Hokusetsu is the exclusive supplier to Nobu’s international franchise. I wonder if the Mandarin Oriental uses Izuha’s selection as the template from which to purchase sake for all of its Japanese restaurants. That would certainly explain why we were paying New York prices for our sake in Tokyo.

2013-07-29 00.35.39And finally, dessert: hakumomo (white peach) compote with hakumomo and lemon yōkan (a thick jelly made from bean paste, agar, and sugar).

Having billed itself as one of Tokyo’s premier sushi destinations, Sora failed to live up to its own marketing hype. While the omakase’s ¥25,000 price tag (substantially more once the sake was factored in) was on par with some of the city’s most elite sushi-yas, the food and execution were rather ordinary, and the inconsistent serving temperature of both the fish and the rice was cause for concern. The acclaimed sake list fell short of the mark too – very few options by the glass, no seasonal offerings, and the mark-up on price was criminal. It’s such a shame, as the service was very good indeed. Imaizumi-san and his staff were friendly, attentive and showed genuine care for their customers’ dining experience. I wonder if Sushi Sora’s problems are due to the hotel location. Generally, the hotel sushi-yas do not rate highly; even the hotel branches of esteemed names like Kanesaka and Kyubei are the weakest performers of their group. I think this may be due to the need for the shops to be open 365 days of the year, and to comply with the hotel’s food standards and procedures. Whatever the reason, something was definitely amiss, and I shall from hence forth be seeking my sushi and sake fix closer to terra firma.

Sushi Sora

03-3270-8800

Fuglen Sake 101: A New Year – A New Sake Generation

Fuglen and Ichi for the Michi are welcoming in the new year with a tasting flight of fresh sake by three dynamic ‘New Generation’ brewers. With sake this good, the future looks very bright indeed.

Senkin Yukidaruma Nigori 仙禽  雪だるま しぼりたて活性にごり酒

IMG_5786

This freshly pressed nigori junmai daiginjō is as delightful as it is rare. Fresh aromas of sweet, juicy fruit jump out of the glass. It’s inherent sweetness is cut through with sparkling acidity and ends with an unexpectedly crisp finish. 

Senkin Shuzō – Tochigi 仙禽酒造 – 栃木県.
原料米:  栃木県さくら市産酒造好的米1等級
Rice: Locally grown 1st Grade Tochigi sake brewing rice
精米歩合:50%
Rice Polishing: 50%
アルコール度 12/ 日本酒度 -30 / 酸度 2.0

Alcohol 12/ Nihonshu-do -30/ Acidity 2.0

This year is the debut of Senkin’s ‘Snowman’ Shiboritate* Nigori** as a junmai daiginjō. It’s an audacious move to brew what is considered to be a doburoku (unrefined) sake with the most refined grade of sake rice. But that is what one would come to expect from this young and innovative kura whose ethos is all about pushing the boundaries of convention… and having a bit of fun as they do it.

Senkin was founded in Sakura, Tochigi in 1806, at the end of the Edo period. Despite its long history, the kura changed direction in 2008, and relaunched the label with the two young Usui brothers at the helm. Their vision: to create a modern sake flavour that marries higher levels of sweetness and acidity, brewed with respect to the traditional methods of the past. All of Senkin’s sake is fresh (or once pasteurised in the bottle), unfiltered, undiluted and painstakingly pressed and bottled by hand. Furthermore, in an effort of capture a sense of terroir, Senkin has a strict “No Yamada Nishiki” (Japan’s most famous and ubiquitous sake rice) policy. Instead, they utilise sake rice (usually Kame-no O) grown in their own fields, or bought directly from local contractors.

While each of Senkin’s sakes have their own unique flavour profile, the overall impression is soft, balanced, beautifully crafted sake with pleasant acidity – perfect for enjoying throughout a leisurely meal.

*Shiboritate, or “fresh pressed”, is the first sake to be released in the brewing year. It is shipped without undergoing the traditional six-month maturation period, so is extremely fresh and vibrant in flavour.

**Nigorizake (Cloudy sake): During pressing a coarse meshed cloth or a net is used, so some yeast and fine particles of steamed rice remain as sediment in the filtered sake – hence its cloudy appearance.

Orouku “Kei” Junmai Ginjō Hon-Nama 王祿 「渓」 純米吟醸 本生

IMG_5782

Aptly named “Mountain Stream”, its soft flavour travels across the palate in a fresh, undulating wave. Light and clean with a subtle sweetness and gentle umami notes – it’s an elegant expression of Orouku’s distinctive style.

Orouku Shuzō – Shimane 王祿酒造 – 島根県.
原料米: 東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦
Rice: Organic, locally grown Yamada Nishiki
精米歩合:55%
Rice Polishing: 55%
アルコール度 16~17/ 日本酒度 +4 / 酸度 1.6

Alcohol 16~17/ Nihonshu-do +4/ Acidity 1.6

Orouku is renowned for producing dignified, muscular and tight bodied sake with an abstruse & complex flavour. The toji (master brewer), Ishihara Takemichi, has an uncompromising brewing philosophy: he only brews junmai sake made from chemical free, locally grown rice, bottled from single tanks. None of Orouku’s sake is blended (the number of each tank is listed on the bottle) filtered, diluted or pasteurised. The result is sake with plenty of personality and vivid impact – making it a favourite of the nation’s junmai fanatics.

Wakanami Junmai 若波 純米

IMG_5790Delicate aromas of dried fruit and vanilla bean carries through in the flavour as it swells across your palate and then recedes with a refreshing dry finish – like the ebb and flow of a ‘young wave’.

As the sake warms the round sweet flavour of sun-dried raisin spreads and brings out more of its vanilla bean fragrance, along with a pleasant astringency. It’s medium body and pleasant acidity give this junmai a particular affinity with a wide variety of food.

Wakanami Shuzō – Fukuoka 若波酒造 – 福岡県.

原料米:  麹: 福岡産山田錦/掛: 福岡産夢一献65%
Rice: Kojimai: Locally grown Yamada Nishiki /Kakemai: Locally grown Yume Ikkon
精米歩合:65%
Rice Polishing: 65%
アルコール度 16%/ 日本酒度 0 / 酸度 1.7

Alcohol 16%/ Nihonshu-do 0/ Acidity 1.7

Wakanami is the new label of a family run brewery which was founded in Taisho 11 (1922) near the banks of Fukuoka’s Chikugo River. The name “Wakanami” is both a reference to the ‘young’ 4th generation brother and sister team who created the label, and the ‘waves’ of the river which flow near the kura‘s door.

Created in 2011, this impossibly small kura has a staff of just four young kurabito (brewers) headed by Kaichiro Imamura, with his elder sister, Yuka, acting as toji (master brewer).

The concept behind their brewing style is to create sake which pushes out flavour and then pulls back to leave behind an aftertaste which reverberates on your palate – like the ebb and flow of a wave, if you will.

Despite this being only her 4th year of brewing under the Wakanami label, Yuka is already producing beautifully composed and compelling sake, which is directional in approach, yet stays true to the full, fragrant flavour profile which is characteristic of Fukuoka sake.

NOTE: As always, you can supplement your flight, or replace any of the above sake, with Norway’s own premium sake: Nøgne Ø “Nadakajima” Junmai or Yamahai Junmai.

Izakaya Dining Worthy of a Shiny Star: Sakanaya Ajisen 肴や味泉

The spirited sake of summer was followed by a double whammy of autumnal hiyaoroshi and fully matured sake releases – what a heady few months it’s been. All my diligent ‘research’ has come at the expense of creative output, so forgive me while I play catch up with some long overdue posts.

Given my particular fondness for shitamachi neighbourhoods, it’s a wonder I don’t venture out to Tsukishima more often. Having escaped damage in both the Great Kanto Earthquake and blanket bombing of the Great Tokyo Air Raids, the back streets still retain much of their yesteryear charm. These days, what draws people here is the abundance of monjayaki shops which line Nishinaka-dori – it is so popular there is even a Monjayaki Information Centre to help you navigate the 75 specialist restaurants in the area. But there would be none of that sloppy, teppan grilled pancake on the menu tonight. What brought me here was the promise of top-class food and sake at the counter of local institution Ajisen.

Ajisen

By the time we arrived for our 7pm booking the room was already packed with white-shirted salarymen, whose flushed cheeks and akimbo ties suggested their end of the week revelries had already begun in earnest. The aesthetic is quintessential izakaya: cluttered tables and slightly worn furnishings enclosed by walls liberally plastered with calligraphied squares of yellowing parchment promoting the day’s specials; the air hums with animated conversations and the frequent clanking of drinking vessels. But that’s where the similarity to a standard izakaya ends. What keeps the crowds coming is Ajisen’s reputation for excellent food – a rarity for izakayas, where food tends to play a secondary role to the liquid libations. In fact, it’s so renowned for the quality of its fare, that it forced the Michelin inspectors to put down their polished cutlery for an evening and deign the shop with a visit. The result was a bright shiny star – making it one of only three izakaya to be recognised by the red guide.

Ajisen otooshi

Otsukaresama deshita!” Warmly greeted by our hostess, and squashed into our seats at the counter, our night began with the usual suspects: a nama Yebisu beer and otooshi.

From our seats at the counter we could peer into the kitchen where chef and owner Shinichi Araki was busily expediting and preparing the food. As he worked for years in a fish market, and given the shops close proximity to Tsukiji, it’s no surprise that the seafood here is extraordinarily good. On any given day there are around a dozen different fish on offer; each available in a variety of preparations: sashimi, grilled, simmered. A handwritten menu lists their perennial offerings, but you would be best advised to look to the walls for the seasonal specials. In addition to seafood, there are also a variety of proteins and vegetable dishes; all listed with the area they were sourced from.

Ajisen sake

But what my eyes were immediately drawn to was the shelf of sake bottles above the counter, which was a veritable who’s who of well-regarded jizake labels. (They serve shochu too, if that’s what floats your boat.)

IMG_5368

If you see Juyondai on the menu, order it. And if you see it one the menu at Ajisen, order it immediately, as it’s no doubt a hard to find variety and it’s bound to sell out fast. The evening’s offering was the Juyondai “Ginsen” Ginjō Namazume (Banshu Yamada Nishiki 50%), Takagi Shuzō – Yamagata. 十四代 「吟撰」吟醸 生詰* (播州山田錦 50%), 高木酒造 - 山形県. Big, upfront ginka fragrance, complemented by the refined, sweet rice flavour and round texture that is so quintessentially Juyondai. All of the elements harmonised to create a perfectly balanced whole. Hashtag bliss.

*Sake that has been bottled as unpasteurized sake. It is pasteurised once for stability after being bottled. It’s similar to hiyaoroshi sake, which is pasteurised once after brewing, but foregoes a second pasteurisation after being bottled.

IMG_4113

Food takes a while here, so to tide us over we made do with a warm bowl of salty edamame…

IMG_5332

…and longing glances of our neighbour’s enormous iwagaki (wild rock oyster, from Ehime).

Friday night and a full-house, the kitchen was slammed. While Araki-san was battling his way through the fish orders, his assistant was diligently pumping out dishes from the fryer. So in spite of ordering in a logical sequence: sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish and fried food to finish, our meal was served in a slightly hackneyed order – a little frustrating when you’re attempting to order sake to match each course, but understandable given the pressure on the small kitchen.

IMG_5331

A substantially portion of handmade satsuma-age was first to arrive. Made with pounded whiting and studded with vegetables and pinenuts, this tasty fish cake was standard izakaya fare elevated to another level.

The delicate ginjō was a little overwhelmed by the savoury flavour of the satsuma-age, so I hurriedly ordered a tokkuri of Orouku’s Takemichi Junmaiginjō Muroka Nama Genshu (Organic Higashi Izumo-cho grown Yamada-Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 王禄 丈径 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

It’s dignified, muscular and tight bodied with an abstruse & complex flavour. Named after its toji, Ishihara Takemichi, this sake exemplifies his uncompromising brewing philosophy: he only brews junmai sake made from chemical free, locally grown rice, bottled from single tanks. None of Orouku’s sake is blended, filtered, diluted or pasteurised. The result is sake with plenty of personality and vivid impact – making it a favourite of the nation’s junmai fanatics.
(I forgot to document our bottle, so here is a shot of the back label I pulled from the net.)

On first sip, my companion bellowed, “Umai!” and went about silently devouring both it and the satsuma-age. Another convert to the joys of this stellar Shimane kura.

Ajisen croquette

Next, crispy golden orbs of potato croquette. Light and fluffy, they were the antithesis of the stodgy stomach liners that one usually encounters at izakaya.

Just as I was about to send out a search party, the sashimi arrived on a wave of apologies. Any grumbles about timing were forgotten as I took in the glorious selection before us. Clockwise from top left: Tairagai (Aichi), hon-maguro chūtoro (Sannicho-oki, Tottori), shime-saba (Tokyo), shimeaji (Tokyo), murasaki uni (Rebu Island, Hokkaido), magogarei, tai (both from Awaji Island, in the Seto Inland Sea), with suzuki (sea bass) front middle, and a pretty pink kinmedai (both from Choshi, Chiba) in the rear. All were of exceptional quality, but the curing of the shime-saba was particularly memorable, and the soft, creamy, richly flavoured murasaki uni was without a doubt the best I’ve had at an izakaya.

I headed south with my next sake: Azumaichi Junmai Ginjō (Yamada Nishiki 49%), Gochōda Shuzō – Saga. 東一 純米吟醸 (山田錦 49%), 五町田酒造 – 佐賀県.

Mild aromatics with a smooth, clean mouthfeel, and the sweet, rich flavour of Yamada Nishiki rice. Its light expression & balanced acidity made it a perfect pairing to the sashimi.

For my companion, I ordered another offering from Orouku: “Kei” Junmai Ginjō Namazume (Higashi-Izumo grown Yamada Nishiki 55%), Orouku Shuzō – Shimane. 渓 純米吟醸 生詰 (東出雲上意東地区産無農薬栽培山田錦 55%), 王祿酒造 – 島根県.

Aptly named “Mountain Stream”, its soft flavour travels across the palate in a fresh, undulating wave. Light and clean with a subtle sweetness and gentle umami notes – it’s an elegant expression of Orouku’s distinctive style.

2013-07-27 20.53.04

An order of anago is de rigeur at Ajisen – it’s what they are most famous for. This nutritious freshwater eel is a summer staple in Japan. When eaten during the hottest days of summer, it’s believed to invigorate ones constitution and stave off natsubate – crippling summer fatigue. We opted for the shioyaki over the richer mushi-anago, to better enjoy the flavour of the wild Matsuyama caught eel that Araki-san uses – “It’s the best you can get”, he says.  Grilled to perfection, the texture of the meat was delicate and buttery. Eel of this quality requires very little embellishment – just a small dab of wasabi to offset its rich fatty flavour. The perfect stamina reviver for a hot Tokyo night.

IMG_5366

By now pressure on the kitchen had eased and I was able to strike up a conversation with the master as he worked away at this station.

Charming and easy to engage, he generously answered our questions about the menu. When he gleaned my interest in sake, his face creased into a warm grin and he disappeared to the “other” sake fridge to retrieve an offering he thought would suit me. And he was spot on:

Amanoto Junmaiginjō Natsuda Fuyuzou Akita Komachi Once Pasteurised (Akita Komachi 40%), Asamai Shuzō – Akita. 天の戸 純米大吟醸 夏田冬蔵 酒こまち 一回火入れ (秋田酒こまち40%), 浅舞酒造 - 秋田県

The softness and grace of this sake was just heavenly – perhaps unsurprising given it’s made by a kura called “Heaven’s Door”. Its refreshing and subtle fruity fragrance was followed through in the delicate sweet flavour. Light and sweet on first approach with a bright acidity and faint bitterness coming later. A sweet rice and umami swells across the palate before ends with a smooth, quiet finish. A most elegant and refined sake.

2013-07-27 20.56.25

While sakana (魚) means fish in Japanese, the “sakana” (肴) in the name actually means appetisers; the kind of flavour packed small plates that drive your thirst on a night out drinking. We went for an izakaya classic: morokyu – miso fermented barley served with chilled, decoratively cut cucumber & eschalot.

IMG_5329

My fondness for tofu misozuke is well documented on this blog. I don’t know what happens during the fermentation process, but the funky, cheese-like result is a beautiful thing. I adore it. Ajisen’s was deliciously creamy and packed with umami flavour.

Had we not been so heat zapped we would have finished with an onigiri, tsukemono and akamiso soup – the later I’ve heard is amazingly good. Oh well, next time.

Our sake glasses emptied, we sat back in the warm afterglow of a great meal. Ajisen’s reputation is well-earned. The quality of the food and sake are exemplary; the atmosphere convivial; and the service is warm & attentive… albeit at times a little slow. As we reluctantly bid our farewells, I found myself wondering for the second time that evening, “Why don’t I come here more often?”

03-3534-8483

Tokyo Sushi: Daisan Harumi – An Edomae Sushi Education

In the current climate of obsessive Michelin star collecting and “The Best Top 50″ check-list eating that has taken hold of the foodie community, you could be forgiven for thinking that there are just five venues for superlative sushi in Tokyo: the starry constellation of Saito, Yoshitake, Mizutani, Sawada and, of course, Sukiyabashi Jiro. It’s such a shame as there are thousands of sushi-ya in Tokyo, and many of them are excellent, but are overlooked by visitors because they lack the potential brag factor of Michelin endorsed names. This trend also seems to highlight the huge discrepancy between what foreigners and Japanese perceive to be the city’s best sushi.

Daisan HarumiWhile Ono-san, thanks to that great vanity piece “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”,  has undoubtably brought a renewed international interest to Edomae sushi (and paradoxically filled his counter with the very foreigners he despises), it is the itaemae of a non-starred Shimbashi sushi-ya that is domestically acclaimed for being one of the true guardians of its traditional techniques. It’s also a favourite of my ‘sushi otaku‘ friends, whose opinion carries far more weight for me than étoiles.

Sushi - By Kazuo Nagayama

Kazuo Nagayama has been converting customers to loyal devotees for 45 years. What makes Nagayama-san standout in a crowded field is his scrupulous, bordering on maniacal, attention to detail and obsession with quality. His refusal to compromise his high standards has gained Nagayama-san legions of fans, evidence of which can be seen in glowing tabelog reviews, where Daisan Harumi consistently places in the top 20. (For what is worth, Jiro is currently ranked #53rd, his son’s Roppongi shop is languishing around 296th). He is also renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of fish, and has written several books on the topic –  his bilingual “Sushi” being an essential purchase.

Daisan Harumi - Kawashima-sanWhile the master was not present the night I visited Daisan Harumi, his presence was everywhere: from the ceramics that he makes himself and the wasabi grater of his own design, to the detailed, beautifully calligraphied shinagaki – a labour of love that takes him 90 minutes to write each day. But, it is most obviously felt in the skill of his able assistant, Kawashima-san, to whom he entrusts the shop to on Saturdays.

Daisan Harumi menu

Kawashima serves an abbreviated menu with two options: a nigiri set ¥7000 and a nigiri omakase ¥10,000 (lunch and dinner are the same price). The plan had been to order the standard nigiri course, however, my companions immediately succumbed to desire and opted for the omakase instead. Fearing I would struggle with the extra pieces, I stuck with the nigiri course. A decision I would later woefully regret.

Daisan Harumi Shinagaki

For a sushi geek, Nagayama-san’s painstakingly detailed shinagaki is a sight to behold. Along with the evenings fish & seafood selection, he lists the provenance (right down the beach and port), fishing method (the awabi was collected by Ama – female divers) killing technique (ikejime or hamajime), its weight, as well as the how it was prepared for service. In fact, he devotes this same level of detail to all of his ingredients: the nori, salt, vinegar, soy sauce, wasabi, eggs, sake… The minutia is mind-blowing. Pictured is the evening’s shinagaki which I was lucky enough to be gifted by Kawashima at the end of service.

Nagayama-san may be the master of many skills, but interior design is not one of them. The black tiled walls, vinyl covered bar stools and counter affixed with long refrigerator units give the place a dated feel, with Nagayama-san’s pottery adding to the slightly hokey aesthetic. It’s a far cry from the sleek, refined environs that one associates with elite sushiya. But we were here for food, and my companions, all of whom are staunch Daisan Harumi devotees, assured me I was in for a treat.

The Nigiri Course

Daisan Harumi - Edamame mousse

We began with a delicate creation of chilled edamame mousse, dashi jelly and slivers of sweet kuruma ebi.

Daisan Harumi - Magochi nigiriLine caught in the waters near Nagasaki, this magochi (flathead) was our entrée to the nigiri course. The light flavoured fish had a slightly chewy texture that reminded me offugu. Its inherent sweetness was nicely enliven with the a swipe of freshly grated wasabi.

The Rice

The first piece always gives me a gauge on the size of the shari and its ratio to the neta. At Daisan Harumi both are generously sized and in proportion. A little too generously sized for me. It was at this point that I made the first of two requests for a slightly smaller shari – the second of which resulted in a marginal decrease in size. Nagayama-san is a stickler about serving his nigiri the proper way, I am told: his way.
It seems that his trusty assistant is just as hardarse.
Daisan Harumi - Torigai nigiri

They say the uglier the fish, the better the taste – an adage which is certainly true in the case of this plump and delicious torigai. Superb!

By the second piece I had a better impression of the rice and it’s seasoning. The organic koshihikari rice, which comes from a small producer in Fukushima, is firm with a nice juiciness and elasticity. Nagayama uses komesu (white rice vinegar), Izōshima sea salt and soft brown sugar to prepare the su-meshi. I understand why a man who has dedicated his life to fish would want to keep the seasoning restrained so as to focus one’s attention in the neta, however, I personally prefer the richer flavour of red vinegar, and more a piquant acidity in my shari.

Daisan Harumi - Aori ika nigiri

Next, aori-ika (bigfin reef squid) which had been line-caught off Kanagawa’s Sajima coast. Nagayama-san was also thoughtful enough to include details about how it was killed – hamajime style – but I’ll save you those details in case you are eating as you read this. The aori-ika’s opaque, thick flesh was seasoned with a light brushing of nitsume. It had a wonderful texture: firm, yet soft and milky. The clean flavour becoming progressively sweeter with each successive chew.

Daisan Harumi - Tamago-yaki

Tamagoyaki made a surprisingly early appearance – I’m more accustomed to eating it as a penultimate course. Served piping hot, I followed the advice of my companions and let it cool – this is the one course of the evening where the “eat immediately” rule does not apply. More savoury than sweet, with a little smokiness from the dashi, the perfectly cooked egg was moist, fluffy and moreish. I much prefer this omelette style tamagoyaki to the sweet, castella-like tamago that is served at Kanesaka and Sukiyabashi Jiro.

The Tuna

According to the menu, tonight’s tuna was a 90.6kg “Shibi” nama hon-maguro (fresh adolescent yellowfin tuna), net-caught near Maizuru, a small inlet on northern coast of Kyoto. Nagayawa-san aged the hara ue no niban cut for 5-6 days to optimise the flavour. More dizzying details on all things maguro can be found on his epic post on the subject. (Japanese only)

These days, most are familiar with the basic tuna cuts: akami, chutoro and ootoro, however, the area from which the loin is taken from that ultimately affects the quality, and asking price, of the fish.

Maguro is basically cut into three sections: kami (near the head), naka (the middle) and shimo (near the tail). These sections are further divided into se (the back area) and hara (the underbelly). Just to complicate things even further, these sections are divided again into graded cuts. Hara kami is therefore the underbelly area closest to the head, and the ni-ban section, which Nagayama-san uses, is cut from the middle of that loin. It is considered the best cut for chutoro and ootoro because of the high fat content and lack of tough sinew. It is, of course, also the most expensive.

Daisan Harumi - Akami

The ruby-red akami had a lovely fragrance and flavour – much milder than the red meat of fully grown maguro. It was a clean and fresh taste of the new season.

Daisan Harumi - Chutoro nigiriThe chutoro was much more unctuous, aromatic and meltingly soft. From here onwards, the subdued flavour of the shari started to make sense. It harmonised beautifully with this topping. I think I may have swooned at this point.

The Sake

Umenishiki Tsuuno HonjozoOnly one sake is served at Daisan Harumi: Umenishiki “Tsuunoshu” Cedar Barrel Honjozo (Yamada Nishiki 70%), Ehime-ken – (梅錦「つうの酒」本醸造 樽酒 (山田錦 70%), 愛媛県). And as you would expect, Nagayama-san rigorously tested it to find the perfect combination of sake grade, length of aging in cedar barrels (14 days) and temperature (50 degrees) to best draw out a flavour that would match his sushi. After gathering his findings, he asked the kura to supply him a sake which fit his exact specifications. You can read his long and assuming account of this process here. (Japanese only)
While it would seem counterintuitive to drink atsukan (hot sake) on a humid summer evening, I must admit the sake paired perfectly with the nigiri. Dry, with a refreshing aroma and taste of cedar. Nagayama-san’s attention to detail certainly paid dividends in the glass.

Daisan Harumi - Kohada nigiri

Hikarimono, literally “the shining ones”, refers the family of shimmering blue-backed fish which thrive in the waters of the Japanese archipelago. Hikarimono are an essential part of an Edo-mae sushi experience, but kohada, or Japanese shad, is perhaps the most iconic neta of them all. Because of its high oil content kohada, like most hikarimono, has a propensity to spoil quickly, so is cured in salt and rice vinegar before being served. Sounds deceptively simple, but I can assure you it is not. A sushi chef must take into account such variable factors as the season, the size and fattiness of the fish, and even the area it was caught when deciding on the timing and shio:komesu ratio employed in the curing process. Finding the balance that will draw out the best harmony of flavours in the fish is a true test of an itaemae’s skill – it’s what separates the good from the great.

And this was great. The piquancy of the red vinegar cured kohada and the restrained umami flavour of the shari were in perfect balance here. The harmony of fragrance, taste and texture was sensational.

Daisan Harumi - Kuruma-ebi senbei
“Ebi sembei” provided a pleasant textual contrast. Flash grilled over charcoal then served over crackling hot chunks of sea salt, the head and shell of the kuruma-ebi were a wickedly crisp. An amusing play on “shrimp crackers”.

Daisan Harumi - Kuruma-ebi nigiri

Tennen kuruma-ebi, or wild Japanese prawns, from the waters near Isshiki, Aichi-ken.

The flash-boiled flesh had clearly delineated stripes of bright vermillion and white – the sign of premium quality wild prawns. The chef’s precise timing was evident here: the meat was firm and tight with a slightly raw center so that it retained its moisture and natural sweetness. Biting into the toothsome body, its warm, sweet juiciness flooded my mouth and sweep me away in a private moment of ‘yum’.

Daisan Harumi - Ikura gunkan
Next, we plunged into a gunkan of Hokkaido ikura. The vividly coloured spheres dissolved upon the lightest of pressure in my mouth, releasing their gloriously rich and briny oceanic flavour. Daisan Harumi is renowned for the Asakusa nori it uses – and for good reason. The light and crispy nori was quite exceptional. As I ate, it melted in my mouth, and gave off a faint aroma of the sea.

The Nori

Asakusa nori was the original seaweed used in Edomae sushi. Sadly, it disappeared from the Tokyo Bay area about 40 years ago, and is now so rare that Asakusa nori is classified as a “critically endangered”. In fact, the variety that is consumed in sushi-ya today is invariably Susabi nori, which came into dominance post WWII, because it grows bountifully and its resilient character makes it more suitable for mass-production.

Nagayama-san is part of a small movement which is trying to revive Asakusa nori production and bring its taste back from the past. He sources his nori from Takeguchi Kiichi, a fisherman who still uses the traditional, labour intensive technique of sun-drying to prepare his seaweed. Because Kiichi-san eschews the use of any additives, it is rougher and less lustrous than commercial nori – and the reason why it would be regarded as second grade quality if it were available on the market. However, Nagayama-san believes him to be “the master of nori making”, and praises the fragrance and flavour of the product he makes.

Daisan Harumi has now been the exclusive buyer of Kiichi-san’s Asakusa nori for over 20 years. It’s available for purchase by appreciative patrons, but low yields and high customer demand mean that there is a two-year waiting list for this most coveted seaweed. Good things come to those who wait, I guess.

Daisan Harumi - AnagoMushi anago (steamed then lightly grilled conger eel) brushed with a yuzu flecked tsume. Velvety soft and buttery, it simply dissolved in my mouth. The subtle taste of the eel was amplified by the tsume so that the natural flavors were center stage. I often find anago overwhelmed by overly sweet and heavy-handed saucing, but this was pitched perfectly. A testament to 45 years of fine-tuning.

Daisan Harumi - Hamaguri Hamaguri is an Edomae sushi classic which stars on menus during the summer months. Declining numbers mean that these bivalves are increasingly rare, and highly prized by sushiya. This evening’s were gathered from the inshore beds of Kusama, Mie-ken, an area famous for its hamaguri.
Butterflied, simmered and then marinated in its own juices to intensify its natural flavour, the cooled bivalve was then formed into a nigiri and finished with a brush of sweet tsume.
The satisfying flavour of the plump and tender hamaguri belied its fairly unlovely appearance.

Daisan Harumi - Chutoro temaki
The finale came in the form of a generously proportioned chutoro temaki. Urged to eat it without delay, I chomped into the crispy cone with childish glee. Delicious.
While the temaki signalled the conclusion of the meal for me, my companions, who had wisely opted for the omakase continued on with four nigiri: mirugaiaji (horse mackerel), hatsu-gatsuo (first of the season skipjack), and a gunkan of Hokkaido murasaki uni. Each piece elicited moans of delight, with the aji and uni receiving the most rapturous praise – much to my chagrin. A word to the wise – always order the omakase.
Was it the best sushi I have every eaten? No – but, to be fair, the reduced Saturday menu is not the meal to measure Daisan Harumi on. However, ¥7000 for a dinner course of this quality must surely be the best cost performance in town.

Over the weeks following this meal, I spent hours pouring over Nagayama-san’s long, detailed notes on the Daisan Harumi website; every fish, every ingredient, every process was explained with such depth and passion that I soon found myself becoming as obsessed as the author. Ultimately, what came out of this meal wasn’t just a pleasant food memory, it was an education par excellence. And while I have still not yet eaten in front of the master himself, Nagayama-san has indirectly enriched my understanding of Edomae sushi and imparted knowledge that I will be able to utilise in all my future sushi adventures. For that, I count myself as one of the converted.

So heed my words: put down that guide-book folks, get yourself schooled, and always order the omakase. Always!

Daisan Harumi
03-3501-4622
 

Fuglen Tokyo – Sake 101: The Flavours of Sake Tasting Flight

This tasting is based on sake’s four classic flavour profiles: Soushu, Kunshu, Junshu and Jukushu.

爽酒 – Soushu: Fresh, Smooth, Herbal Sake 

石鎚 純米吟醸 緑ラベル 槽搾り
Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funeshibori
 

Crisp and refreshing like pure spring water. Mild ginjo aromas, with a delicate body, mineral notes and crisp acidity make this an excellent sake to pair with food. Slow-pressed with a traditional wooden fune to produce a beautiful fine-grained texture.

Ishizuchi Jungin Midori Label

石鎚酒造 (愛媛)Ishizuchi Shuzo (Ehime)

Ishizuchi Shuzo is a small, family run brewery founded which was founded in 1920, near Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture. The name of the shuzo comes from Ishizuchisan, a mountain significant for being the tallest in the Shikoku region, as well as the source of the rich spring water which is used to create their sake.

This tiny brewery is run by four members of the Ochi family, who devote themselves to producing a small amount of high quality sake made with time-consuming, labour intensive techniques. Their junmai ginjo is fermented for 40 days at a low temperature, then slow-pressed using a slow-pressed with a traditional wooden fune press. The result of this careful process is a finely textured sake with a smooth, well-rounded flavour.

原料米: (掛)松山三井 (麹)山田錦
Rice: (Kake) Matsuyama Mii (Koji) Yamada Nishiki
精米歩合:(掛)60%、(麹)50%
Rice Polishing: (Kake) 60%, (Kouji) 50%
アルコール度 16~17/ 日本酒度 +5 / 酸度 1.5 / アミノ酸度 1.1
Alcohol 16~17/ Nihonshu-do +5/ Acidity 1.5/ Amino Acids 1.1

薫酒 – Kunshu: Aromatic, Fruity, Sophisticated 

鍋島 純米吟醸 山田錦 (生酒)
Nabeshima Junmai Ginjo Yamada Nishiki (Namashu)
 

An elegant ginka aroma of honeydew melon and pear. Initially sweet on the palate, it swells with soft rice flavours, then tapers into a refreshing, dry finish. A fragrant and beautifully balanced sake.

Nabeshima Junmai Ginjo Yamada Nishiki Namashu

富久千代酒造 (佐賀) – Fukuchiyo Shuzo (Saga)

In recent years there has been a growing buzz surrounding Nabeshima – and for good reason: they consistently produce beautifully crafted sake, each with its own unique personality and characteristics.

It’s made by Fukuchiyo Shuzō, a small brewery which was founded in 1883, in Saga, a north-western prefecture of Kyushu. Under the direction of its visionary tōji, Naoki Iimori, the Nabeshima label was launched in 1998 with the aim of producing artisan sake that celebrates the local people, rice, water and brewing traditions of Saga. While they use famous sake rice strains like Yamada Nishiki and Omachi, they are also actively involved in developing locally grown strains. The shuzō has also developed a “Green Tourism” project, which encourages people to reconnect with the land and the local agriculture community through home-stays, rice planting and harvesting, as well as slow food events. Their vision of the future is very much a sustainable one.

Small production levels mean that stocks quickly sells out – especially of its award-winning Yamada Nishiki Junmai Daiginjō and Junmai Ginjō.
It’s elegant fragrance of florals infused with sweet melon and apples are characteristic of the #9 yeast used in the brewing process. One of the most important of all the brewing yeasts, it is also known as Kumamoto yeast, after the prefecture in Kyushu where it was first developed.

What is so extraordinary about this sake, and Nabeshima sake in general, is that so much fruity flavour can be extracted from the rice. Fragrant sake with smooth, balanced flavours and soft-grained texture, supported by perfectly pitched acidity are the hallmarks of the Nabeshima style.

原料米: 兵庫県産山田錦を100%使用
Rice: 100% Hyogo-ken grown Yamada Nishiki.
精米歩合: 50%
Rice Polishing: 50%
アルコール度 15~16/ 日本酒度 +5 / 酸度 1.3
Alcohol 15~16/ Nihonshu-do +5/ Acidity 1.3

醇酒 – Complex, Bold, Old School 

七本槍 純米 滋賀渡船 
Shichihonyari Junmai Shiga Wataribune
 

A classic junmai with comforting depth, earthiness and old school charm. It has a complex yet balanced flavour, with rich, voluptuous rice notes that permeate throughout your mouth. A thoughtfully crafted sake from one of Japan’s oldest jizake breweries.

Shichihonyari Wataribune Junmai

富田酒造 (滋賀)Tomita Shuzo (Shiga)

Shichihonyari (Seven Spearmen) is produced by one of Japan’s oldest artisan breweries, Tomita Shuzo. The name of this iconic label is a reference to seven samurai who secured victory for warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi in the 1583 Battle of Shizugatake which took place near the shores of Lake Biwa, not far from where Tomita Shuzo had established itself in 1540.

The history of this tiny, family run kura is as compelling as the well-crafted sake they produce.  The 15th generation tōji (master brewer), Yasunobu Tomita, may be young and worldly, but he has the wisdom to continue to produce sake in accordance with the philosophy and traditional techniques of his forefathers. They only make junmai made from local Shiga rice, and eschew overly refined rice polishing, blending, filtration and pasteurisation. Despite increasing demand for their sake, they have resisted the urge to modernise – they still make all of their sake in small batches, by hand with a traditional wooden fune. Their sake truly embodies the spirit of jizake brewing. Check out Shichihonyari’s amazing website. (Japanese)

原料米: 滋賀渡船 
Rice: Shiga Wataribune
精米歩合:77% 
Rice Polishing: 77%
アルコール度 15~16/ 日本酒度 +6 / 酸度 2.1 / アミノ酸度 1.8
Alcohol 15~16/ Nihonshu-do +6/ Acidity 2.1/ Amino Acids 1.8

熟酒 – Jukushu: Mellow, Rich, Mature.

Omiji Kijoshu 1978

近江路 純米貴譲酒 1978年

Ōmiji Junmai Kijōshu 1978

Strikingly dark amber hued in the glass, with intensive aromas of molasses, toasted chestnut, bittersweet chocolate, shiitake and Asian spices, which follow through on the palate. Its deep, rich and complex flavour is balanced with a fruit vinegar-like acidity and slightly bitter aftertaste – this is a sake to linger over and savour.

近江酒造 (滋賀) – Omi Shuzo (Shiga)

Founded in 1917, Ōmi Shuzō is located on the Eastern side of Lake Biwa, in Shiga-ken – about 50kms south of Tomita Shuzō. And their close proximity is no coincidence. Lake Biwa is the largest lake in Japan and the water systems that flow from it are famed for their softness and purity. As water is one of sake’s fundamental ingredients, it is hardly surprising that the area is home to so many well-regarded kura.

Ōmi Shuzō makes a broad range of sake, but it is their koshu (aged sake), the Ōmiji Junmai Kijōshu 1978, which enjoys an almost maniacal following. If we break down the components of its name, we can learn more about this fascinating sake. Junmai means “pure rice”, so no alcohol has been added during the brewing process. To make kijōshu (“noble brew sake”), the tōji adds a full-bodied sake from a previous season to the fermenting moromi instead of water. And finally, “1978″ is the year that the sake was brewed - in this case the Ōmiji has been carefully aged in the kura since it was brewed 35 years ago. Heady stuff!

Like the Ishizuchi, two types of sake rice have been used in the brewing process: Akebono, from Okayama-ken, for the kōjimai; and Nihonbare, a local Shiga rice strain, for the kakemai – both polished to 60% if their original size. Best served at 6˚- chilling helps to bring out the acidity and enliven its rich flavour, or at room temperature as a comforting nightcap.

原料米: (掛) アケボノ (麹)日本晴
Rice: (Kake) Nihonbare (Koji) Akebono
精米歩合:(掛)60%、(麹)60%
Rice Polishing: (Kake) 60%, (Koji) 60%
アルコール度 17/ 日本酒度 -38 / 酸度 1.8 / アミノ酸度 1.5
Alcohol 17/ Nihonshu-do -38/ Acidity 1.8/ Amino Acids 1.5

Tokyo Sushi: Under the Radar @ Sushi Zen

Sushi Zen is as delightful as it is enigmatic. But don’t go looking for it amongst the hallowed names on the Michelin Guide – it’s not there. A tabelog search will produce a bare bones listing proving its existence, but little else. Even a google search will only generate a couple of accurate hits – the rest bring red-herrings that will try to direct you to a sushi chain with the same name.

Why the mystery? Well, it would seem that Sushi Zen is not a place that one finds, it’s one that finds you.

It was a tip-off by a fellow Chowhound that first brought this sushiya to my attention. Their description of a sushi meal that focused less on nigiri, and more on an extended course of high-quality, skillfully prepared sashimi, paired with a superb array of premium sake, sounded… well, it sounded pretty much like my idea of gastronomical nirvana. I had to investigate.Sushi Zen

Owner and itaemae, Kenjiro Imaizumi, earned his stripes at Fuji, an introduction-only sushiya, in Akasaka, before going on to establish his own shop in 2009. While Sushi Zen is not as prohibitive to first-time diners as his former workplace, it does seen to operate under an informal referral system which ensures a discrete environment for his loyal customer base of media-types and well-known faces that work in the area. Keeping the shop under the radar seems to be an effective business strategy, as the counter was still full with diners when I arrived for my late seating on a Monday night.

The first thing you notice upon entering is how friendly and relaxed it is. Imaizumi-san’s face crinkled into a welcoming smile as he gestured me to my seat at his small L-shaped counter. The other patrons, obviously curious about the foreign female who had entered their midst, also acknowledged my arrival with a round of head-bobs before returning to their animated conversations. It was such a contrast to the stilted, formal air of most high-end sushiya, where customers sit in hushed, almost apologetic silence.

Once Ninisix had extracted herself from the impossible labyrinth of the new Shibuya Fukutoshin station, and taken her seat at my side, we asked Imaizumi-san to pick us out a sake to start on. And I must say, his first recommendation couldn’t have been more perfect.

Isojiman 2

Isojiman Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Premium A-Grade Yamada Nishiki: Koji 50% – Kakemai 55%) – Isojiman Shuzo, Shizuoka.
磯自慢 純米吟醸 生酒原酒 (特A地区東条産 特上特米 山田錦100%: 麹 50% − 掛 55%) – 磯自慢酒造、静岡。

More than any other sake, Isojiman holds special significance for me. My first home in Japan was a tiny hamlet on Shizuoka’s Izu Peninsula, and it was there that I had an epiphany that would ignite my insatiable curiosity for nihonshu: a glass of Isojiman Junmaiginjou. What a revelation! Even now, after so many years of tasting, slurping and swilling, a glass of Isojiman transports me back to that first taste experience and fills me with both comfort and nostalgia.

This pristine and beautifully crafted jungin epitomises the seemly flawless brewing style that Isojiman is so renown for. It’s refreshing and fruity ginka, overflows with aromas of white stone fruit, rock melon and green pears. Delicately sweet, with clean acidity and well-balanced flavour, this elegant sake is not only wonderful as an aperitif, it also has enough oomph to stand up to a variety of foods.

Imaizumi-san

It’s worth noting that there is no written menu or drinks list. Instead, Imaizumi-san presents the seasonal seafood he has on offer, and after confirming your preferences (for us: hikarimono, red fish, shellfish, not so much white fish) and mood (nigiri for the hungry Ninisix, rice in liquid form for me), he goes about tailoring a food and drinks course to suit. I suppose you could call it okonimi-omakase style dining.

Be warned: no menu means no prices, so make sure you bring plenty of cash, especially if you’re drinking. Exclusivity doesn’t come cheap.

Torigai
Thwack! Our meal began with Imaizumi-san slamming a torigai (giant cockle) down onto the wooden cutting board, where it immediately began to curl and contort itself like some strange alien blossom. My knowledgeable companion, who was obviously quite accustomed to this spectacle, leaned over and calmly explained that the itaemae was releasing the muscle to improve the texture. Once the torigai had finished its macabre little dance, it was then chopped into two parts and placed delicately onto counter, where it was quickly dispatched into our awaiting mouths. Late spring/early summer is the best season to enjoy this fugly cockle, and ours, caught off the coast of Chiba, were prime specimens: beautiful glossy black with thick, succulent flesh and a delicately sweet flavour.
With the mercury in the low 30s, the accompanying palate cleanser of finely ribboned, pickled kyuuri was a refreshing alternative to gari.
Juyondai
Juyondai Kakushin Junmaiginjou Hon-Nama (Dewasansan 80%, Yamada Nishiki 20% – semaibuai: 50%) – Takagi Shuzo, Yamagata.
十四代 角新純米吟醸 本生 (麹米:兵庫県特A地区東条産山田錦20% – 掛米:太古活性農法米出羽燦々80% – 50%), 高木酒造 – 山形県。
Next up on the hit parade: Juyondai, a producer of artisan sakes which are as beautiful as they rare. Almost transparently clear with an upfront fragrance that brings to mind images of melon and ripe grapefruit. A beautifully composed sake that combines the fresh vibrancy of a shinshu with the distinct elegant fragrance and sweet rice flavour that is characteristic of Juyondai. Finely textured with a taste that lingers and reverberates in the palate – this is a sake to be savoured.
Tairagai
Two thick slices of tairagai (the abductor muscle of a pen shell) made an appearance – though not for long. The milky white meat was firm and crunchy, with a mild umami flavour. A dab of freshly grated Shizuoka wasabi further enhanced it’s delicate sweetness.
Kohada
For our edification, Imaizumi-san served a luminous duo of kohada (caught near Nanao, Ishikawa) which had undergone different lengths of curing: prepared on the day (left) vs. one cured three days earlier (right). The fresher kohada was noticeably plumper and soft, with only a slight tang in its flavour. In contrast, the three-day cured pieces, which had lost much of their oil content during marination, were denser in texture and had a deep, satisfying taste that elicited loud mmm’s of appreciation from Ninisix and myself.
Nabeshima
Nabeshima Aiyama Junmaiginjou (Aiyama 50%) – Fukuchiyo Shuzo, Saga.
鍋島 愛山 純米吟醸 (愛山 50%) – 富久千代酒造、佐賀県。

“Do you have any Nabe…?” Without missing a beat, Imaizumi-san dipped below the counter and reappeared cradling this purple labelled bottle, a knowing smile spread across his face. Limited in production and hard to obtain, this “Lovely Label” is a rare treat. Its luscious fruity scent gives an impression of ripe pineapple, which follows through in the mouth. On first sip, the sumptuous rice flavour and gentle sweetness spreads across the palate, then slowly fades out with clean finish. A refreshing, pure and thoughtfully brewed sake.

Kuruma-Ebi
Next, Imaizumi-san presented a pair of wild kuruma-ebi (Japanese tiger prawn), that had been caught off the coast of Oita, for our inspection. A few minutes later, they were elegantly draped across the counter before us, still steaming from their brief bath in boiling water. The meat was firm, sweet and… a tad overcooked. It was no match for the delectable juiciness of the kuruma-ebi I had experienced at Daisan Harumi, a few weeks prior.
Ebodai Shioyaki
We continued with a simple dish of ebodai (Japanese butterfish) shioyaki. The skin had been grilled to a thin, salty crust while the white flesh remained soft and buttery beneath. Just magic with a spritz of fresh sudachi lime.
Hiroki Jungin
Hiroki Tokubetsu Junmai Namzume (Yamada Nishiki 55%), Hiroki Shuzo Honten, Fukushima.
飛露喜 特別純米 生詰 (山田錦 55%) − 廣木酒造、福島県。
There is plenty of buzz surrounding this small Fukushima kura, and for good reason: Hiroki consistently produces outstanding sake. Unfortunately, its massive popularity combined with small production levels has resulted in scarce supply and elevated prices. No wonder it’s called “the second Juyondai”. But it’s not just hype; evidence of its greatness can be found in a glass of this beautifully composed junmai. It has a restrained fragrance and a light, sweet rice flavour that sweeps across your mouth in a soft wave, then recedes with a clean, dry finish. While is was delicious straight out of the refrigerator, the flavour become much more compelling as it warmed to room temperature.
Aji
This aji (Japanese jack mackerel), from Kagoshima was a knockout. Despite being the start of the aji season, the flesh was exquisitely rich and fatty with a soft, smooth texture. The garnish of fresh ginger and finely chopped asatsuki (Japanese chives) added a dash of colour and fragrance that further enhanced this flavourful fish.
Hon-maguro 2
Let’s just take a moment to contemplate the magnificence of this spectacle: a 1.5kg cut of line caught hon-maguro (bluefin tuna), caught off the coast of Sado Island, Niigata. As hon-maguro is caught in Japanese coast waters, it can be immediately sent to market without freezing, which accounts for why it is both highly prized and outrageously expensive.
Akami/Chutoro

This was my moment of sushi zen. Imaizumi-san cut the maguro in a long cross-section so that our slice of sashimi contained both lean akami meat (on the right) and fatty chutoro (on the left). By cutting it in this manner, Imaizumi-san was effectively reducing the number of portions he could yield from the fish by half – though, he more than makes up for it with a healthy price supplement.

The flavour was out if this world! So good in fact that we greedily ordered up another slice.

Hatsu-gatsuo

Hatsu-gatsuo (the first bonito) is a delicious harbinger of the summer season. The flesh of this north migrating katsuo is lean, rich and softly textured. The lack of fattiness means that one can really appreciate it’s minerally flavour. Served in thick slices with ponzu, grated ginger and a scattering of asatsuki, it was simply outstanding.

When we enquired about its provenance, Imaizumi-san whipped out a map and showed us the exact location it was caught from. He then proceeded to give us a masterclass on the migration patterns and routes of katsuo- a most entertaining education.
Suigei Jungin 2
Suigei Junmaiginjou Ginrei (Matsuyama Mitsui 50%) – Suigei Shuzo, Kochi.
酔鯨 純米吟醸 吟麗 (松山三井 50%) – 酔鯨酒造、高知県。

It had been a few years since I last tried the jungin of this popular Kochi kura, but it was just as approachable as I remembered it. It has a fairly restrained nose with hints of sweet fruit that continue through in the flavour. Its complexity, refreshing acidity and dry finish make this sake a good companion to a wide variety of food. It paired particularly well with the umami packed flavours of the katsuo tsumami.

Michizakari
Michisakari “Junmai” Daiginjou (Matsuyama Mitsui 45%) – Michisakari Shuzo, Gifu.
三千盛「純米」大吟醸 (松山三井 45%) – 三千盛酒造、岐阜県。
Michisakari, a historied and much celebrated shuzo, was championing a dry style of sake long before the big brewers in Niigata kicked off the karaguchi boom in the mid-seventies. Their junmai daiginjou firmly maintains the integrity of the kura‘s early vision by bucking the trend for a highly aromatic and fruity expression of junmai daiginjou and delivering a dry, sharp taste which cuts through your palate like a samurai sword. A perfect match for the sushi that was to follow. Served chilled the flavour was a little tight, but after it warmed in my hand more mellow rice and umami flavours came to the fore. I’m look forward to revisiting this as kanzake once the temperature starts to cool.
Hatsu-gatsuo nigiri
While I was distracted in a conversation with our amiable neighbours, Ninisix ordered a short course of nigiri of hatsu-gatsuo, kohada, shiro-ika (white squid) and akagai (ark shell clam). Her expression gave little away, but she admitted later that is was good, but not great. This reinforced our view that Sushi Zen is more of a destination for a sashimi degustation rather than a traditional nigiri course.
Nakaochi maki
I joined my companion in the final course of nakaochi maki. The fatty maguro filling is meat scraped with a spoon from between tough strips of suji (connective tissue). Sounds frightful, but tastes delicious. The maguro was wickedly rich, but its glorious flavour was let down by somewhat by underwhelming rice.
Tomizou Jungin
Hatsukame Junmaiginjou “Tomizou” Organic (Organic Yamada Nishiki 50%) – Shizuoka.
初亀 純米吟醸 「蔵」オーガニック (有機山田錦 50%) – 初亀酒造、静岡県。

There were 7 sake available on the night (the selection and quantity changes weekly), and I was determined to try them all. To my delight, our host served another sake from Shizuoka to finish on. Well played!

Named after the kura‘s founding father, Tomizou is a limited edition label (released just twice a year) from Shizuoka’s Hatsukame brewery. Their sake tends be sharp and dry, but this organic jungin indicates the kura is heading in a new direction. It is the pet project of the young toji who aims to invigorate the brand by marrying traditional brewing with new technology and high quality organic rice. It is crystal clear and perfumed with the aromas of honey and soft flowers. The light and elegant flavour spreads smoothly across the palate, revealing notes of sweet rice and crisp Meyer lemon. Yum!

By now our glasses were drained and our appetites replete, but yet we lingered on, reluctant to bring an end to what had been a most pleasurable evening.

Imaizumi was a consummate host, deftly predicting our every need and pacing the service of food so that one never felt rushed or left wanting. His affable character put everyone at ease and set the tone for the room: along the counter, strangers had become drinking companions and the room hummed with lively conversation.

The informal atmosphere, free from the stifling codes of behaviour that usually apply at exclusive sushiya, is really that makes Sushi Zen the kind of place you want to return to every night… and I’m told many of his customers do – lucky sods.

It’s food experiences like this that make me seriously consider giving myself over wholly to gluttony.

Sushi Zen
非公開
(Private message me for contact details)