Category Archives: recommended

Posts about recommended food and sake experiences in Tokyo, written by Rebekah Wilson-Lye for Ichi for the Michi.

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

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
 

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)

Tokyo Sake: Natsuzake Tasting @ Honoka

When the temperate days of spring turn to the humid monsoon days of early summer, brewers around the country wrap up production for the year and 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 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.

Keen to keep abreast with the seasonal offerings, I made a reservation at my preferred venue for a serious kikizake: Honoka. The beauty of this place is not just the owner’s outstanding selection, meticulously detailed sake menu and inspired recommendations; it’s also the ability to order a broad range of sake in half-sized tasting glasses – thus avoiding any irreparable damage to one’s wallet or constitution.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Before any visit I make sure to first pop into Kagataya, the specialist jizake (small kura production) sakaya, in nearby Nishi-Koyama, to glean information on the latest releases. Currently, Kagataya are devoting 4 full fridges to natsu namazake releases – it really is a glory to behold. But you need to get in quick, especially with the more desirable brands, as limited production numbers means that once they have sold their stock – that’s it.

So after a quick perusal and chat with the friendly staff, I made a mental note of labels I wanted to try, gathered up my purchase (Kameizumi’s Junmaiginjou Namazake CEL-24) and made haste to my awaiting seat at Honoka.This evening I would be supping in the fine company of the erudite Asomaniac along with fellow contributor to Chow’s Japan boards, Ninisix – the Yoda of sushi. I must admit to being a little apprehensive about introducing my cherished Honoka to diners of such refined tastes, but after one look at the four page sake menu, Asomaniacs eyes lit up with boyish glee. Phew!

With a sashimi-moriawase already pre-ordered, food and the daily specials were momentarily ignored so that we could get on with the most pressing issue at hand: deciding what to drink. Sake can be ordered by tokkuri (¥850), 120cc glass (¥550), 90cc glass (¥450), or a 60cc tasting glass (¥300). There are also six sets of tasting flights (¥850): an osusume set; karaguchi, full-bodied and sharp tasting sets; a flight focusing on a particular rice variety; and the kimagure set which lets you select your own choice of three from the menu. Having quite particular preferences, we took full advantage of the latter option.

Our first flight was a comparison of two ‘wine like’ sakes and – as he knows my preferences better than anyone – a recommendation from Takisawa-san.

(Left) Sogga Pere et Fils “Neuf” Junmaiginjou Nama Genshu (Miyama 59%) – Nagano.
ソガペールエフィス 「NEUF」純米吟醸 生原酒 (美山錦 59%).

Brewed by Obuse Winery, the Sogga is named after the #9 yeast that gives it its upfront and fruity bouquet. Although its flavour is initially fairly sweet, this is balanced out by a big wallop of acidity (酸度 2.5!!!) and some gentle astringency. Crisp, fruity, and dry in the finish – this sake doesn’t just look like white wine, it thinks it’s white wine too!

(Middle) Hououbiden “Wine Cell” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nakazume (A-Grade Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Tochigi.
鳳凰美田『WINE CELL』純米吟醸酒 無濾過生詰 (特A 山田錦 55%).

Superb! The crisp ginka fragrance that emanates from the glass comes courteous of the French wine yeast used during fermentation. It’s a wonderfully bright and finely textured sake with a seemly effervescent mouth feel. They’ve got the balance of sweetness and acidity spot on here – a much more successful attempt at a white wine-like sake than the Sogga.

(Right) Ikki Junmaiginjou Namashu Jikakumi (Gohyakumangoku 55% – kouji: Yamada Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
一喜 純米吟醸生酒 直汲み (五百万石 55% – 米麹: 山田錦 55%).

Takisawa-san’s pick, and Asomaniac’s favourite of the set. I haven’t paid much attention to sake from Chiba, but this sub-label of Kinoenemasamune has certainly inspired me to try more. It has the youthful and fruity flavour one would expect from a summer namazake, but with much more finesse than many of its brash counterparts.

On a recent visit I was fortunate enough to try a rare release from Tabika – so rare in fact that it was only distributed to two restaurants. I was given strict instructions that it was not to be photographed or even blogged about, but Takisawa-san allowed me to snap a photo as a memento, which I will share here – albeit heavy censored. Sadly, it was already sold out, so Takisawa-san suggested a tasting of three sake from the same brewer: Hoshigawa Shuzo, in Mie.

(L) Tabika Omachi Junmaiginjou Muroka (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 雄町純米吟醸 無濾過 (雄町 50%).

The Tabika Omachi was definitely the stand out for me, and reaffirms my opinion that Omachi is the true king of sake rice.

(M) Soushun Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nakadori Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 55%) – Mie.
早春 特別純米 無濾過 中取り 生原酒 (美山錦 55%).

(R) Tabika Natsunama Junmaiginjou Nakadori Fukuroshibori (Omachi 50%) – Mie.
田光 夏生 純米吟醸 中取り袋搾り 無濾過生原酒 (雄町 50%).

Fukuroshibori is the labour intensive method of pressing sake in bags rather than using machinery. The resulting sake is referred to as “shizukuzake“.

Nakadori: The middle part of the pressing of a batch of sake. This usually implies using a fune (traditional box press) rather than a machine. Nakadori (also known as nakakumi) is considered the most prized portion of pressed sake.

(L) Orouku Choukaraguchi Jikakumi Muroka Nama Genshu (Kakemai: Yamada Nishiki – Kouji: Gohyakumangoku 60%) – Shimane.
王禄 超辛純米 直汲 無濾過生原酒(掛米:富山-五百万石 – 米麹:兵庫-山田錦 60%).

I’m a big fan of this Shimane label, so its arrival was preceded by much effusive praise from me. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to impress my companions I failed to note that I had ordered the extra dry, unfiltered and undiluted junmai – a complete mismatch to the refined Nabeshima. This gusty little Orouku would have been best sampled alongside the drier sake of the next round.

(M) Shinomine “Rokumaru” Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Oyama Nishiki 60%) – Nara.
篠峯「ろくまる」純米吟醸 無濾過 生酒 (雄山錦 60%).

This was my first experience of Oyama Nishiki, a new sakamai variety bred from a cross between “Hidahomare” and “Akita-sake No.33″. It was developed in 1986 at the Toyama Agricultural Research Center to create a variety of early maturing sake rice with a large white (starch) core – the ideal characteristics of rice used to create daiginjou grade sake.

(R) Nabeshima Junmaiginjou “Passion Label” Akaiwa Omachi Namashu (Omachi 50%) – Saga.
鍋島 純米吟醸 赤磐雄町 生酒 (雄町 50%).

“Passion Label” is a fitting epithet for this sublime Nabeshima sake. It’s a kura can do little wrong in my opinion. The union of the toji Naoki Iimori’s craftmanship and Omachi rice is truly a match made in sake heaven.

(L) Hitakami “Yasuke” Houjunkaraguchi Junmaiginjou (Miyagi Kuranohana 50%) – Miyagi.
日高見 弥助芳醇辛口純米吟醸 (宮城県産 蔵の華 50%).

This sake was developed over the course of three years in order to exactly match the subtle flavours of sushi. It’s clean, dry taste and subtle fragrance are designed specifically to complement delicate sweet white meat, shrimp, squid, and shellfish.

There is a cute story behind its name: from the Meiji to early Showa era, sushi was referred to as yasuke in the world of the geisha. Its roots go back to performances of the popular kabuki drama “Yoshitsune Senbonzakura” (義経千本桜). Defeated in the Genpei battle, one of the heroes of the story, a Taira General called Koremori, escaped and fled to take settler in a Tsurube shop where we worked under the alias “Yasuke.” As geisha were connoisseurs of both kabuki and in jokes, it became common practice to refer to sushi as yasuke in the floating world.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – Aichi.
醸し人九平次 純米吟醸 (雄町 50%).

A celebration of nashi pear notes, crisp acidity, anchored by the soft umami flavour of Omachi rice, this is an accomplished and immensely satisfying drop. Many will be familiar with their wildly popular “Eau du Desir” label, also a junmaiginjou with a seimaibuai of 50%, which is made with Yamada Nishiki. While the Omachi version lacks the soft, round texture of its coveted sibling, I personally find it just as desirable.

(R) Shirataki “Doshin” +15 Junmai Binhiire (Menkoina 65%) – Akita.
白瀑「ど辛」+15 純米酒 瓶火入(めんこいな錦 65%).

As it says in the name, this Akita sake delivers a big “thump”. Super dry and plenty of impact, it’s definitely one for the “I only drink karaguchi” fan club. It’s intense, but in no way rough, and bottle pasteurisation has probably helped to soften the blow of its punchy flavour. Crisp, refreshing with the mellow flavour of rice in the background – a great sake to pair with food.

(L) Ippakusuisei Arabashiri Junmaiginjou Muroka Nama Genshu (Miyama Nishiki 50%) – Akita.
一白水成 あらばしり 純米吟醸 無濾過生原酒 (美山錦 50% -秋田県酵母).

Ippakusuisei is a label created 7 years ago by the young president, and 16th generation head of Fukurokuju Shuzo, Koei Watanabe. It has quickly earned popularity for its distinctively crisp, clean and aromatic sake.

The “arabashiri” in the name of this jungin means the “rough first run” – the first 1/3 of a batch of sake that seeps out of a fune press before any pressure has been applied. This first trickle is then collected, bottled – without any dilution or pasteurisation – and immediately sent out to market as arabashiri sake. As is characteristic of this style, the Ippakusuisei had a slightly cloudy appearance, an upfront fragrance and a lively, assertive flavour. While I’ve enjoyed Ippakusuisei’s sake on many occasions, I was not so enamoured with this one: too rough and astringent for my tastes.

(M) Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmaiginjou (Omachi 50%) – The same as above.

(L) Kameizumi Junmaiginjou CEL-24 Nama Genshu (Hattan Nishiki 50%) – Kochi.
亀泉 純米吟醸 生原酒 CEL-24 (八反錦 50%).

I’ve affectionately dubbed this the “flower bomb”. CEL-24 is one crazy, mixed up Franken-yeast, but boy does it create smile inducing aromas. This Kameizumi jungin is an explosion of sweet florals, pear and ripe melon – lush, vivacious and enormously fun to drink.

The CEL-24 yeast which gives the sake its over the top fragrance, was developed by the Kochi Prefecture Industrial Centre. The features of this idiosyncratic little yeast are its exaggerated fragrance and high acidity. One look at its -12 nihonshudo will have ardent karaguchi lovers aghast – but don’t let the saccharine scent fool you – its sweetness is a bit of olfactory trickery. The high acidity levels even out the flavour into a pleasant balance of sweet and sour. Of course, at first your brain will register sweetness, but this dissipates as the full-bodied flavour spreads across your palate, leaving an apple cider-like acidity in its wake.

Many friends have sneered in derision at my favourite little flower bomb, but oh how their tune changes after the first sip. Curled lips evaporate into childish grins, and I see them struggling to reconcile how something so seemly wrong could be oh so right. Quite frankly only a completely joyless person would fail to be charmed by this quirky little sake.

There was, of course, food involved in our night at Honoka, but you can read my previous review for more details. It suffices to say that it was good: the garlic miso-yaki being a highlight; the uni – a monumental fail. Sadly, our three hour seating was over all too soon. We left considerably more wobbly than we arrived, but elated and determined to find an excuse to return. So while I still haven’t quite worked out what my excuse is, I’ve made a booking for next week, nonetheless.

A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a tiny, busy izakaya, that seats only 8 people at the counter. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend…or booking elsewhere.

Tokyo Sake: Jizake @ Shin, Musashi-Koyama – 酒彩 SHIN, 武蔵小山

My reckless pursuit of good food and sake has led me on a merry dance around Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. So it never ceases to amaze me that my best discoveries are located a stone’s throw from home, in the Koyama area of Meguro. Sake Dining Honoka is still my top choice of specialist sake izakaya, and Kagataya’s sake selection has yet to be usurped by another bottle store. And now I can add Shin to my list of preferred sake destinations.

Located a short distance from Musashi-Koyama station, Shin doesn’t offer much in the looks department, but it sure makes up for its fugliness with great food and interesting sake at reasonable prices.

Named after owner, Shin Ito, this izakaya very much resembles its name sake: humble, welcoming and a little rough around the edges. Walls liberally plastered with nihonshu labels, displays of sake related paraphernalia, and rustic slab timber table tops give you the distinct impression that this is a manly drinking den… perhaps not the best venue for dinner with my Japanese ‘mother’ and ‘little sister’. Thankfully, Mama and Tee-chan come from good country stock, and settled into their seats unfazed.

The dimly lit main room has hongetsu seating for 10, while deeper into the space are counter seats in front of the small kitchen where Ito-san single-handedly prepares the all the food. Despite being a Monday night, the place was full when we arrived, and tables turned over several times throughout the evening with patrons who were familiar with the owner – Shin obviously has a loyal following.

Straight down to business, I got stuck into the sake menu which has an interesting selection of famous jizake labels, as well as a few more obscure names I had never come across. As Shin specialises in namazake, stock levels are kept at a minimum. The benefit of this is that the sake list is updated daily, and customers can be assured that what they are being served it at its optimum.

On the evening I visited, there were 10 varieties of 23BY sake on offer, and, as it was early December, a showcase of half-dozen varieties of shinshu and shiboritate releases. As the name suggests, shinshu (新酒) is ‘new sake’ which has not undergone full maturation, while shiboritate (しぼり立て) is ‘just-pressed’ sake that hasn’t had any maturing at all. Both are young, fresh and often brash in flavour, but give an insight into the potential of this year’s brew.

I’m not a huge fan of these adolescent styles, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try Shichihonyari’s Junmai Shiboritate Nama Genshu (七本鎗 純米しぼりたて生原酒 – Tamasakae rice 60%). Mama, who prefers a sweeter style, opted for the waiters suggestion of the Mutsuhassen Blue Label Tokubetsu Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu Funasake (陸奥八仙 青ラベル特別純米無濾過生原酒ふな酒 – 60%) made with Masshigura, a newly developed variety of Aomori table rice. As both were new season, unpasteurised and undiluted, they had plenty of punch and vibrancy. The Mutsuhassen had a lovely melon fragrance and soft mouthfeel, but was a little too sweet and assertive for me; I much preferred Shichihonyari’s cleaner, more restrained flavour.

Drinks sorted, we turned out attention to the food, and the attractive ootoshi plate that had been set before us. From top right: Mini oden, kaki no shiraae (persimmon mixed with tofu, sesame paste and white miso), fried sato imo, grilled aubergine topped with a barley miso, pumpkin salad, and ebi in ‘American sauce’ – a milder version of Cantonese XO sauce. Wow! I wasn’t expecting this level of quality or plating to come out of the kitchen. And if the otooshi was any indication, Shin was about to blow away my low expectations.

The quality of the fish an izakaya uses in its sashimi moriawase is always a good benchmark for me, and I was more than happy with the grade of Shin’s selection: kanburi (winter yellowtail), ika (squid), shime-saba (cured mackerel), uni, madai (sea bream/snapper) and autumn katsuo (skipjack/bonito) with a julienne of garlic.

This was my first encounter of Sakehitosuji, from Toshimori Shuzo in Okayama; a jizake brewery, which only use locally grown rice. Their Shiboritate ‘Snail’ Junmai-ginjo is made with Hyogo Kitanishiki rice 酒一筋 純米吟醸 かたつむり (兵庫北錦 55%), a new variety of sakamai breed from Nadahikari and Gohyakumongaku. The ‘snail’ had a floral ginjo nose and the assertive, tight taste one would expect from a new season’s brew. Things calmed down as it approached room temperature, revealing some pleasant spicy and umami notes.

A monster sized iwashi shioyaki (salt grilled sardine) had Mama in raptures. I watched in amusement and pride as she picked the bones clean, guts and all.

I couldn’t get enough of the aburi shime-sabe with goma (sesame) sauce. This is surely the best way to enjoy cured mackerel – flame seared so that the skin crisps up and the rich flavour of the flesh is released. Fatty, fishy and deliciously moreish.

You won’t find bog-standard izakaya dishes like kara-age on the menu here. However, you can get your greasy food fix with a plate of uni and hamo isobeage: deep-fried, nori wrapped totoro (grated yam), stuffed with sea urchin and conger eel, served with sudachi lime and smoked sea salt – agemono elevated to another level.

The fresh ginjo fragrance and clean, balanced flavours of Sanrensei’s Junmai-ginjo Muroka Genshu (三連星 純米吟醸 無ろ過生原酒 – Wataribune No#6, 55%) was a great match for all of the rich winter fish we were eating. It’s definitely worth seeking out this Shiga sake.

A healthy portion of grilled aubergine and shiitake salad topped with crispy flakes of fried nori was a delicious reprieve from all the fishy protein.

Kanae is a new label by Shunshumeijo brewery, in Nagano, makers of more widely known Ryozanpaku and Takizawa brands. I ordered the 23BY Kanae Junmai-ginjo Nama Genshu, (鼎 純米吟醸 生酒Miyama Nishiki 55%), but the waiter generously offered me a complementary glass of the newly released Kanae Akiagari Junmai-ginjo (鼎 純米吟醸限定 秋あがり- Miyama Nishiki 55% ) as a side-by-side tasting. Both had a crisp, fruity ginjo fragrance and slightly sweet rice flavour, with the younger of the two having a brash acidity that made you sit up and take notice. I much preferred the more subdued and balanced 23BY, but was thankful for the comparison, nonetheless.

Mama went old school with the last order of the night: Ika no shiokara ochazuke. Ika no shiokara is basically squid that has been fermented in its own guts, and ochazuke is cooked rice which has green tea, water or – in this case – dashi poured over it. Put the two together and you have a warm, comforting umami bomb. Definitely not for the faint hearted!

Shin may lack the accessibility and big name sake labels of Tokyo’s more renowned izakaya, but if you value good food and regional sake, served without pretension, then it’s well worth making a detour to this little diamond in the rough.

Shin
03-3760-9596

Tokyo Izakaya: My Favourite Counter

Teiji Nakamura may not be a name many are familiar with, but you most certainly should be aware of the fine establishments of this renowned restaurateur. When an occasion calls for good food and sake with a touch of sophistication, his flagship izakaya, Namikibashi Namamura, and its equally impressive sister shop, KAN, have long been my destinations of choice. However, since the departure of KAN’s talented head chef, Sasaki-san, I have been looking for a new shop to call home. Thankfully, I didn’t have to search far as a prodigy of Nakamura, Kotaro Hayashi, had opened at shop which seamlessly filled the void.
Opening last year to much fanfare from the local foodie community and immediately drew praise from such luminaries as the izakaya guru Kazuhiko Ota, who is a regular. But, as with any place in Tokyo that has a buzz about it, getting a reservation was – and still is – frustratingly difficult. Despite my jouren-san (regular customer) status, I couldn’t get a reservation there until early this year, and even then I had to book three weeks in advance!
Located behind the Ceralean Tower Hotel, in the tangled backstreets of Sakuragaoka, Kotaro-san’s shop has the trademark Nakamura look: stylish, contemporary ambiance combined with a wabi-sabi aesthetic. The narrow shop is dominated by an elegant wooden counter that encloses the focal point of the space – an immaculate kitchen, with a few table seats at the rear for groups of four. Because of its small dimensions, it seats only 22 diners, the shop immediately feels cozy and intimate.

Before opening his own izakaya, Hayashi-san rose through the ranks of Nakamura’s establishments; beginning at Playground, in Shimokitazawa, before going on to head the kitchen at KAN for 10 years.

The influence is immediately noticeable on the menu, with many classic ‘Nakamura’ dishes making an appearance. What is also evident is that Hayashi-san pays close attention to seasonal ingredients, utilising produce from well-sourced regional purveyors and organic farmers. Along with its rustic washoku fare there are a variety of small plates of umami packed otsumami that pair nicely with sake.

On a late summer visit, a refreshing glass of French sauvignon blanc was the call of the day – I forget what it was, but it sure hit the spot. We settled into our seats and nimbled on a tasty otoshi of shintorisai and green soybean ohitashi, garnished with katsuobushi.
Sake lovers will take comfort in the staff’s thoughtful selection of jizake a rarity in Shibuya. They stock a variety of sake from 8 well-regarded kura: the first page of the menu lists lighter varieties; the second, more full-bodied sakes, with plenty of yamahai for those that like a more robust style.

 

I am always delighted to find offerings from Shizuoka on a sake list, and even more so when it’s Kikuyoi; a kura which consistently produces excellent sake. We started with an old favourite, the Kikuyoi Tokubetsu Junmai (喜久醉 特別純米 – Yamada Nishiki 60%). This slightly golden hued sake has a fruity, pineapple aroma and a mellow, ricey junmai flavour. Dry and finely textured, this sake makes you want to go back for more.

Watching Hayashi-san’s expert and rhymic knife skills was almost as enjoyable as eating the pretty sashimi moriawase he placed before us.

Not only is the sashimi of very good quality, it is also made with sustainable fish. From front left: shime-aji (white trevally), katsuo (skipjack tuna), shime-saba (cured makerel), sanma (Pacific saury) and shako. The soft purple-hued shako (Mantis shrimp) is a violent little crustacean which comes into season around summer. Its slightly grainy texture really sings with a spritz of fresh citrus.

A ‘Nakamura’ classic: Creamy, silken yakko (fresh tofu) dressed with a warm sesame soy sauce, topped with sauteed leeks, jako (fried baby sardines) and a chiffonade of katsuobushi. The soft, creamy tofu is perfectly complemented by the salty and crunchy topping. This is a dish which could certainly convert even the most ardent carnivore to the joys of the humble bean curd.
Another consistently good sake that works well with summer seafood is the Ishizuchi Junmai Ginjo Green Label Funeshibori (石鎚純米吟醸緑ラベル槽搾り- Yamada Nishiki 50%), from Ehime. It’s lightly fragranced, with a faint sweetness that is balanced out with mineral notes and a pleasant acidity. Crisp and refreshing like pure spring water.
With the mercury still in the 30’s, I had a craving for a bright and clean salad to combat my summer lethargy. Hayashi-san was sympathetic to my plight and generously offered to make us something off menu, rustling up a vibrant salad of fresh, organic aubergine, new season tomato and Tokyo bekana (a  small Chinese cabbage) with a piquant shiso and sesame dressing. Delicious and revitalising – he read me perfectly.
Sanma is a peak this time of year, and is ubiquitous on menus. A relation of mackerel, this humble and inexpensive fish needs little embellishment; salted and charcoal grilled (shioyaki), and a simple garnish of grated daikon seasoned with soy sauce and a splash of fresh sudachi lime is the best way to enjoy its richly flavoured flesh.
Impressed by the summer menu, I immediately re-booked for autumn; a time when a cornucopia of harvest produce is available and fish, plumped up with fat after their long swim down from the cold waters of the far north, return to the Japanese archipelago in abundance. It’s my favourite season for food.
Anago (sea eel), duck,  kaki (oysters) and buri (yellowtail) feature heavily on the autumn menu, but what I was most excited about was the return of ankimo (monkfish liver). Anyone who knows me, will be well aware that the start of autumn heralds the beginning of my annual ankimo binge… and if Hayashi-san’s homemade ankimo ponzu was anything to go by, it was going to be a dangerously delicious season.
The clean and dry flavour of Taka’s Tokubetsu Junmai (貴 特別純米長州の純米酒 -Yamada Nishiki/Hattan Nishiki 60%), from Yamaguchi, works well with the richer flavours of autumn food. It has an appealing fruity fragrance, with mellow sweetness and gentle acidity – very quaffable.
Another ‘Nakamura’ classic: potato salad. A simple dish elevated to another level with the addition of a perfectly cooked smoked egg and goma dressing.
Shichihonyari is made by one of Japan’s oldest breweries, Tomita Shuzo. Founded in the 1540’s, near the shores of Lake Biwa, the history of this tiny kura is as compelling as the well-crafted sake they produce. 15th generation brewer, Yasunobu Tomita, may be young and worldly, but he also has the wisdom to continue to produce sake in accordance with the philosophy and traditional techniques of his forefathers. Shichihonyari Junmai Ginjo Namagenshu (七本槍 純米吟醸 垂れ口直汲み 生原酒 – Tamasakae 55%), made with Shiga’s native Tamasakae rice that is pressed using a traditional wooden fune, embodies the taste and artisan craftmenship of this grand old kura. It has an appley ginjo fragrance, with a mellow flavour that finishes crisply, leaving your palate refreshed for another sip. Divine!
The penultimate dish was a hearty buri, tofu agedashi and kinoko ankage, that Hayashi-san divided into individual portions for my companion and me. Ankage is a thick, clear sauce made with kuzu (arrowroot) flour, so it has the slightly neba-neba consistency that my Japanese friends adore…and I struggle with. The buri was buttery; the tofu soft and pillowy, and the mild dashi flavour of the sauce was nicely enlivened by the grated daikon and dusting of yuzu zest. I really wanted to enjoy it, but that gooey texture puts me off every time.
While my friend greedily finished off my bowl, I sort sustenance in a tokkuri of Souken Tokubetsu Junmai (宗玄 特別純米 純粋無垢 – Yamada Nishiki 55%), from Ishikawa. Elegantly fragranced and a clean mouthfeel, with plenty of flavour and excellent balance.
Make sure to leave room for the bukakke udon which Hayashi-san makes by hand each day. It’s a little nod to his Kagawa roots.

Repeat visits over the past 12 months have left me in no doubt that the team here are on top of their game. Their passion and knowledge of seasonal produce is evident in the consistently good food and sake they showcase each month. But what I enjoy most about Hayashi-san’s shop is that it hits just the right balance between casual and sophisticated dining. It’s a place conducive to conversation over plates of satisfying food, and the clinking of ochoko with good friends.

[A plea to foreign visitors: Please be mindful that this is a busy restaurant. If you are not proficient in Japanese, then out of respect for the staff, please consider going with a Japanese speaking friend, or booking at the more English friendly Nakamura]

 

Tokyo Food & Natural Wine: Ahiru Store, Yoyogi-Koen – アヒルストア、代々木公園


Although it opened in 2008, I only came across Ahiru Store last year, when I made note of its strong ranking on tabelog during one of my regular late night trolls for inspiration. A few days later, it was splashed all over the pages of Brutus magazine’s wine bar edition and,  needless to say, as soon as Ahiru Store was given that local style barometer’s seal of approval, seats (and even standing room) at the tiny bistro were immediately among the most coveted in town.

One year on and the buzz shows no sign of abating. From the moment it opens at 5pm till the last orders are called there is a constant line of customers patiently queued outside Ahiru’s door. 


Standing in line on a small backstreet in Yoyogi-Koen, your appetite is teased by the heavenly aromas of roasting meats & herbs that emanate from the small kitchen and a tempting window display of freshly baked breads – it can be a torturous wait. But persevere and the pay off is some seriously good eats.


If you are lucky you can snag a stool at the counter, otherwise you will have to make do with space around one of the wine barrels that double as tables for standing patrons. 

 
Owner and sommelier, Teruhiko Saito, is a busy man. He spends the entire evening in a state of constant motion: turning over tables, taking orders and preparing appetisers. He also runs a tight ship, so be prepared to order your drinks straight away. You can choose from the selection of bottles (mostly French) displayed on the wall, or from the daily selection of four red and white options by the glass (¥800). Although he is a harried man, Saito-san is generous in giving descriptions and helping customers make selections from his vast selection of shizenha (natural) wines; a genre is he obviously passionate about.
 

‘Natural’ has usurped organic and biodynamic to become the latest buzzword in wine.  But what does it actually mean?
 
Well, there is no official definition of natural wine, but essentially its organic or biodynamic wine made with minimal intervention: no additives or tricks of technology. In other words, natural wine eschews commercial yeasts, preservatives and (in France) sugar – yes, it’s considered a chemical in the natural viticulture world. The result is a naturally fermented ‘naked’ wine, low in sulphur, and, as it is made in small quantities from single vineyards, it is said to better capture the characteristics of the terroir and grape.

 
Hipsters, who love to fetishise the authentic, have been quick to champion the natural wine movement for its old school techniques and anti-establishment ethos. In fact, they will probably delight in telling you that they were drinking it ‘before it was cool’…groan! But its popularity can’t just be attributed to Williamsburg residents and the wearers of ironic spectacles alone; for equally ‘on trend’ individuals and restaurants that adhere to a foraging, slow food philosophy, natural wine has been fervently received as the logical accompaniment to farm-to-table cuisine. 
 
 
Japan has become one of the most enthusiastic importers of natural wines (some French makers saying that it accounts for more than 50% of their exports), which is hardly surprising given the public’s concern about the origin and purity of food in the wake of last year’s Tohoku disasters. Another practical reason for its popularity here is that the Japanese have a hard time metabolising alcohol, so the low sulphur levels in make it an ideal choice for their constitution. A cynic like me would also add that it could also due to Japanese consumers susceptibility to aggressive marketing (the annual Beaujolais Nouveau mania being case in point) and a cultural tendency to equate purity with quality.

Natural wine has been heralded by some as the future of viticulture, and dismissed by others as ‘faddish, fault-indulgent hippie juice’, with Wine Advocate’s Robert Parker going one step further by declaring it “one of the major scams being foisted on wine consumers”. It’s hard to disagree with the philosophy and ethics behind the genre, so why does this wine have aficionados so staunchly divided, and more importantly, how does it taste? Well, that’s exactly what I came to Ahiru Store to find out.
 


Intrigued by his description of apples and calvados, I ordered La Treille Muscate’s Vendange Tardive 2008, from the Haute Corbieres area of Languedoc-Roussillion – a blend of macabeu & pinot gris. The wine had a peachy hue, with the taste of over-ripe apples and honeycomb, marred by musty sherry notes and a staleness that I would describe as oxidised. It would seem that Saito-san’s description of calvados was a literal one, as it definitely tasted like a fortified wine – albeit one that had been filtered through an old Gallic sock. Why this was being recommended at the onset of a meal was beyond me. Not a great start to the evening.

On a brighter note the food here is excellent. Saito-san’s sister, Wakako, is at the helm in the kitchen, preparing rustic, home-style French fare with aplomb. 

We started with a basket of their in-house baked breads: potato & rosemary focaccia and a moreish wedge of the onion pain de campagne. Both were outstanding. I should mention that you don’t have to dine-in to sample their selection – it can be bought from the door as take-out.

 

The bread was also put to good use mopping up this simple preparation of haricot beans cooked in olive oil with sage, and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.

A salad of avocado and octopus with a wasabi infused olive oil and garlic dressing. Generously portioned and delicious. 

I still have cravings for the parmesan and sesame studded grissini, which come tied with ribbons of prosciutto ham. Devilishly addictive. 

After requesting something a little dryer, I was served a glass of Cheverny “Les Perrieres” 2011, by Christian Venier. As soon as I put the glass to my nose, I was hit by the pungent smell of wet stone and tarragon vinegar. My first sip only served to confirm my initial suspicion – the wine was spoiled, acetic and all together unpleasant. I didn’t know whether to send it back or toss it over my salad. Of course, I couldn’t send it back as this is how it was suppose to taste; its fermented in a tank with a loose seal to encourage oxidation which, when properly managed, creates umami characteristics – or vinegar, when it’s not.

Down but not out, I ordered a glass of the Cheverny La Pierre aux Chiens, again by Christian Venier (pictured above, next to the La Treille Muscate). It is worth noting that all of the wines at Ahiru Store are served chilled – even the reds – due to their unstable nature and propensity to spoil. It was a smart, light-weight pinot with the flavour of cherry, cranberry and a touch of earthiness. While quite drinkable, it was a little too light in my opinion – more like a grape juice than pinot noir. By this stage I felt like asking, “Can I please have a wine that tastes like wine?

 
I sort solace in a delicious plate of sanma confit. Its slow cooking in oil had rendered the meat meltingly soft, and I greedily devoured it, head, bones, tail and all. 
 

Everything at Ahiru Store is produced in-house, from the pickles to the tasty selection of sausages which Saito-san grinds and stuffs himself. As I don’t eat meat, it was up to my companion to ‘take one for the team’ with a hearty plate of pork and shallot sausage with potato salad. They then proceeded to ignore me as they were transported to piggy heaven. I was informed that it was as substantial in taste as it was proportion.


A subsequent visit resulted in much better luck with the wine. This 2010 Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, from Tracy-sur-Loire, had pleasant ripe grape and pear aromas, with a fuller body than one would expect from a sauvignon blanc. It was refreshing with a nice balance of acidity – very drinkable.  

 

There was an audible ‘pop’ on opening of the Vin d’Alsace Laurent Bannwarth Riesling 2010 (second from the left), which indicated this wine was very much ‘alive’. It had a herbaceous nose which opened up to reveal some flinty notes and a touch of calpis (???). The taste was of bright fruit, with a lively yoghurty tang. An unusual expression of riesling, but an interesting one none the less. 

This La Lunotte Haut Plessis, made with a rare Loire grape called Menu Pineau, was a bottle of liquid sunshine. Slighty cloudy in appearance, with aromas of citrus and, err.. sauerkraut. It was light and dry with vibrant acidity that made me wake up and take notice. Something worth revisiting in the hot summer months.

It was the night before a public holiday and, as last orders were called, Saito-san dimmed the lights, turned up the Kraftwerk and popped some bubbles – he clearly had recreation on his mind. Domaine Andre et Mireille Tissot’s 100% chardonnay sparkling Cremant du Jura was fresh and crisp with a complex texture, cut through with a slight acidity and layers of mineral notes. A little more savoury than I like my bubbles, but quite enjoyable.

I applaud the ‘less-is-more’ debate that the natural movement has instigated in the greater wine industry, and believe that a shift backwards, to less chemical intervention and more conscious production, will ultimately be a step forward. Over the past few months, I’ve had some ‘ahh’ moments: well crafted, vibrant wines, such as the Domaine Alexandre Bain Pouilly-Fumé, have definitely opened my eyes to the enormous potential of the natural genre. However, what is stopping me from jumping on the natural wine bandwagon is that when they are good, they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are atrocious! A disproportionate number of the wines I’ve tasted were funky (in a bad way), overly acidic and unpleasantly weird. Rather than being pure expression of the terroir, these wines would best be described as micro-bacterial disasters – a result of natural wine makers focusing too dogmatically on the process, and not enough on the quality of the end result, perhaps? So for now, I remain firmly on the vineyard fence.
 
What I am sure of, however, is that Ahiru Store deserves all of the accolades that have been bestowed upon it. It’s a lovely neigbourhood bistro, serving well prepared, produce-driven food at reasonable prices. I love the buzz the informality here. 
 
So regardless of where you stand on the ‘natural vs. conventional’ spectrum, if you approach the wine with an open mind, you will walk away from an evening at Ahiru Store delighted.  
 
NB: Reservations can be made for no later than 6:30pm. 
 
03-5454-2146
 
 

Tokyo Sushi: Sushi Kanesaka, Higashi-Ginza – 鮨かねさか, 東銀座

It was their penultimate day in Tokyo, and despite spending five (sleepless) days in constant pursuit of flavours, knowledge and inspiration, the boys from Maaemo still had one regret: not eating any high-end sushi. Being one of the lucky few who were treated to their superlative creations during a two night pop-up event at Fuglen, I knew there was no way the local foodie community could let these wunderkinds leave without enjoying such an experience. However, with less than 12 hours before service started at Tokyo’s starred sushiya, securing a booking was going to be neigh on impossible.

If there was one man who would be sympathetic to my pleas, it was Shinji Kanesaka, the chef of the eponymously named two-starred sushiya; a man highly regarded not only for his exceptional skill, but also for his amiable nature.

The call was placed, negotiations made, and voila! He would open dinner service two hours early for us (and two lucky dinners whose reservation had been languishing on the waiting list). What a gentleman.

At the appointed hour, our motley crew of eight bundled into the tiny 14-seat restaurant, located a stones throw from Tsukiji market, in Higashi-Ginza. Despite its diminutive dimensions, Kanesaka’s atmosphere is open and relaxed, a feeling reinforced by the warm and welcoming staff. Taking our seats in front of Sanpei-san at the gleaming shiroki counter, we were visibly apprehensive, but the chef’s disarming personality quickly put us at ease, allowing us to sit back and savour the experience that was about to play out before us.

Sushi Kanesake only offers their Edomae sushi as omakase, so while there is no menu, you are able to state your dislikes and preferences – in my case, a smaller shari to allow me to eat a full course without discomfort.

At lunch, the omakase prices range from ¥5,000 (sushi only), ¥10,000 to ¥15,000, while at dinner, prices hike up to ¥21,000 and ¥30,000 – the latter offers a couple of extra otsumami (entree) courses and higher grade cuts. Given our time restriction, we were only able to order the ¥21,000 dinner course, which consisted of 6 ostumami dishes and 10 sushi, but due to the early hour and our hungover condition, this proved to be just right.

Sitting in quiet reverence to the man and his craft, we began: perfectly seasoned and subtly sweet shiro-ebi (white shrimp), from Tottori-ken.

Nama-gaki (fresh oyster) from Hokkaido. Lightly seasoned as if it had been washed over by an ocean wave. Milky. Fresh. Divine.

Katsuo (skipjack tuna) is a fish that I usually associated with summer, but Sanpei-san informed me that in autumn, when the fish migrate south from Russia, they have a layer of fat which makes the meat more tender; at which point he pointed out the faint white streak that coloured the edge of the fish. Paired with negi ponzu and grated ginger, it was sensationally soft and delicious.

Charcoal-grilled anago (sea eel) with momoji (grated daikon with seven spice) and ponzu.

From a large ceramic pot, the chef fished out a huge whole awabi (abalone), which had been simmered in its own stock. I think shock and awe must have registered on my face at this point – I haven’t seen a specimen that big since my childhood days in New Zealand, where paua (as it is called there) is something of a national treasure. I adore the distinct succulence and pleasant al dente texture of awabi, but I was even more impressed with the sliver of its own flavoursome liver that it was served with. A highlight for me, but for my companions, this was the least enjoyable texture and flavour of the meal.

Salt grilled tachiuo (scabbard fish) served with a simple garnish of daikon. With fish this good you hardly need any embellishment.

Kanesaka has a small selection of sake from reputable kura. I chose the Kudoki Jozu ‘White’ Bakuren Dry Ginjo (くどき上手 超辛口吟醸 白ばくれん – Yamada Nishiki 55%), a light tasting, clean sake with a sake value meter of +20 – this is about as dry as it gets. A perfect foil to the unctuousness of the maguro that was to follow.

The rice was called for, and the sushi course commenced with a balletic display of knife skills and graceful hand-eye coordination. First, shima aji (striped jack – a close relation of aji and hamachi).

A note about the rice, Kanesake uses only akazu (red vinegar) and salt to season his rice. No sugar is used in the process, which results in a more savoury, slightly firmer texture. This is a point that has some reviewers divided, but as I have a predilection for salty flavours, I thought it was spot on.

It is also worth mentioning that Sushi Kanesaka use the same fish as three-starred, and the current #1 sushiya on tabelog, Sushi Saito. The reason: Shinji Kanesaka is a part-owner of his former apprentice’s restaurant. Every morning, all the fish orders arrive at Kanesaka, where they are broken down and portioned, before being sent on to Saito for the day’s service.

Akami

Chu-toro

O-toro

The anticipation was palpable when the chef pulled out a tray of glistening maguro cuts. Here come the big boys!

Akami

I regret that I had quickly dispensed with my cumbersome camera and only used my iPhone to document the sushi course, as I was not able to adequately capture the rich, jewel-like colours of the tuna.

Chu-toro

O-toro

One of the more keen-witted amongst us noticed that the rice used for the o-toro was slightly warmer than for the previous pieces. The reason, I was told, was because the warm rice helps to melt the fat and release more flavour. And what a flavour: the rich marbled flesh completely dissolved in my mouth and left a wonderfully lingering after taste. I discovered in post-meal enquiries that the Holy Trinity of tuna was not part of the ¥21,000 course, it was Sanpei-san’s expression of respect to the Maaemo chefs.

Ika (squid) seasoned with sadachi lime.

Kohada (herring). Lightly cured in salt and mirin, this was the star of the night.

Karuma-ebi (imperial prawn) stuffed with ebi-miso (its own entrails). The men in our group were served theirs whole, but Kanesaka-san thoughtfully cut each piece in half for the women, so that we could, errr… keep it classy. I found the ebi slightly overcooked, which seems to be something of a common occurence in Japan.

Another standout of the evening: Aji (jack fish) with negi (leek). By now, the chef noted the Norwegian’s affinity for aozakana (silver fish), and was interested to discover that both cultures used similar preparations for curing it.

 

Deconstructed sushi. Glistening corals of Hokkaido uni, with a side of ikura (salmon roe). Sublime. From here the conversation took on comic proportions as I was given the unenviable task of translating the Norwegian name for uni, kråkebolle, into Japanese. Sanpei-san quickly got the joke and diffused my awkwardness by declaring, in English, that these were indeed very “tasty balls”.

A semi-sweet treat to end on: again, we were served grilled anago, but this time with a sweet tare sauce and sancho pepper seasoning. It was followed by a thick slice of the most perfectly formed tamago-yaki. Sweet, spongy and custard-like, this was an inspired finale.

Fabulous food and an equally fabulous dining experience. Sanpei-san executed a meal that was not only technically impressive, but also wonderfully composed. Throughout the course of the meal he took time to give detailed explanations of the fish, as well as graciously answer our questions of how each was prepared. His ability to seamlessly transition from quiet, masterful chef to jovial host – cracking a few jokes in his limited English – made the evening infinitely enjoyable.

But above all, that Kanesaka was able to turn ‘Maaemo Dreams of Sushi’ into a reality, is something for which I will always be indebted.

Sushi Kanesaka

03-5568-4411

Tokyo Coffee: Fuglen Tokyo – Yogogi-Hachiman, フグレン トウキョウ – 代々木八幡

A Nordic ‘Bird’ has nested in Yoyogi Koen, and if the number of fixed-gear bikes parked at its door is any indication, it’s certainly got Tokyo’s bespectacled hipster set atwitter. 

This new foreign resident is Fuglen, a Norwegian import which, since its opening this past May, has built a solid reputation and garnered a loyal following amongst foreign and Japanese coffee aficionados alike. Originating in Oslo, this multi-concept space is a cafe cum vintage store by day, and by night a cocktail bar where cultures, conversations and design converge.

The retro colours, 60’s modernist furniture and dark wooden cabinetry, which showcase a selection of vintage Nordic ceramics – all are available for purchase – create an aesthetic which is effortlessly cool yet decidedly laidback. Customers can lounge on the leather sofa while flicking through a thoughtful selection of Scandinavian design books and the latest edition of uber-style bible, Monocle, or take a pew at one of the window seats which look out over a quiet residential street. All the while the place hums with conversations spoken in a multitude of languages, and so for a moment it’s easy loose one’s bearings. The reason for this is, explains manager Kenji Kojima, “This isn’t Japan, this is little Oslo.”

Unusually for Tokyo, Fuglen is open from 8am on weekdays (I predict this will be a growing trend as locals cotton on to the idea of a cafe breakfast), and, rarer still, serves remarkably good coffee. Along with Nozy Coffee beans, which are used for espresso, they also offer a selection of Norwegian roasts as fresh brew & aeropress coffee. Again, all are available for purchase – albeit at steep Norwegian prices.

Food is minimal: you can order a smoked salmon sandwich or choose one the pastries that are occasionally displayed on the counter.  But if you’re peckish, don’t dispair – bring your own. Yes, that’s right, one of Fuglen’s charming idiosyncrasies is its BYO food policy – a system it has adopted from its parent store. Bring along some tasty morsels from a local bakery (I recommend Viron and Cheese Stand), or order a takeout from your favourite delivery service. No one will bat an eyelid.

The atmosphere changes at dusk when the dim lights come on and the bar seats fill. Japanese and Norwegian craft beers are popular on a balmy summer’s evening, as are their extensive list of cocktails, all conceived by champion mixologist, Halvor Digernes.

I was fortunate enough to meet the man himself on one of his regular trips to Tokyo to update the staff on the preparation of his bespoke cocktails. His signature Dandy Lion, the cocktail which scored him a victory at the 2011 Linie Awards, is a revelation: Linie Aquavit, Dandelion root, bee pollen syrup, lemon, egg-white and burdock bitter all shaken into a pillowy dream. Sublime.

It is the attention to consistency and quality which really makes Fuglen stand out from the new faces in Tokyo’s burgeoning cafe scene. From the decor to the coffee beans, everything is of exceptional quality and executed expertly by the welcoming & talented crew.

On a recent visit I managed to inadvertently become part of a photo shoot for the popular style magazine, Brutus. So if you see a photo of a girl sipping a Shiga Kogen craft beer while nonchalantly holding (someone else’s) Shiba puppy – you’ll know its me. But be warned, once that publication hits the news stands it will be standing room only at this little bastion of cool.

Fuglen Tokyo
03-3481-0884