Don't know how, but when I woke up the next morning, I was neither stuffed nor hung over. After multiple courses, and 3.5 bottles of wine shared among 4 friends, I don't know how that was possible. There is something mysterious in the Japanese culture that a rough americanized Russian Jew like myself might never get to see. How lucky am I to have friends who help me unpeel the layers; and slowly the foreign becomes more familiar through an inaugural masterpiece of a first-ever home-cooked Japanese meal.
While sushi does seem to go with sake or beer better than any wine I've tried, Japanese food is so much more than sushi. Elegant, subtle and refined like so many things Japanese, the fresh and savory ingredients with a splash of the right sauce turn into gastronomic delights for those who pause to appreciate the simple sophistication. Granted one meal is just that. But I can't help but draw conclusions. Japanese food reminds me of red Burgundy - light, elegant, and infinitely intense in it's quiet charm.
Not surprisingly, the wines Eric paired with the meal were a Franciacorta (Italian sparkler), a Sancerre, and a red Burgundy - wines that don't scream or punch, but rather whisper and caress.
1. The dinner started with 3 kinds of Onigiri - rather large rice balls: one with salmon filling, another filled with pickled daikon, and the third sprinkled with furikake - bonito and ume (pickled plum). The furikake flavor reminded me of dry-cured jerky-like pork shavings but lighter. Excellent with Ca'del Bosco Franciacorta Cuvee Prestige Brut that tasted of lemon and peach.
2. The onigiri were followed by maguro (tuna) marinated with pickled ginger and wasabi flavored sauce. Usually, in a tuna tartare type dish, I've seen soy sauce and sesame, but here Mao applied a more delicate touch with the tangy wasabi/ginger combo.
3. Then arrived kanpachi (amberjack) and kyuri (cucumber) salad. The sushi-grade fish was sprinkled with a dressing made of shiso/dijon mustard and soy/mirin - a kind of rice wine. Used to dipping sushi in wasabi and soy sauce, I found the mustard and wine flavor in the dressing unexpected, complex, and very flavorful. The dish came just in time for us to open the superb 2002 La Bourgeoise Sancerre from the town of Chavignol in Loire. The oak-aged wine had 7 years to evolve and integrate, now showing beautifully rich and fresh, reminiscent of great examples from Pessac-Leognan in Bordeaux, and as far away from the searing grassy notes of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as possible.
4. I'd never had a Matsutake mushroom before. Considered an autumn delicacy in Japan, this mushroom is prized for its aroma, although it's nowhere near as pungent as truffles. Sliced about 1/4 inch thick, lightly grilled, served with ponzu (soy vinegar) and yuzu citrus (that tastes like a combo of Meyer lemon and mandarin) topped with daikon-oroshi (grated Japanese radish) and mitsuba (Japanese wild parsley), the mushroom had to be grilled just right in order to showcase its fun squid-like texture and subtle flavor.
5. The absolutely delicious kabocha (Japanese pumpkin - a kind of winter squash) & mushroom soup was lighter and not as sweet as a typical american butternut squash soup.
6. I just couldn't stop eating the Tonkatsu (breaded pork tenderloin), stealing my friends' allocations too. Pork tenderloin was seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper, then breaded and deep-fried, moist on the inside and crisp on the outside, topped with gooey sauce that reminded me of Chinese preserved plums - sweet, sour, and salty all at the same time, and karashi (Japanese mustard) served with shredded cabbage. I was in pig heaven.
The 2006 Marc Roy Gevrey-Chambertin with soft sensuous texture and slightly sweet fruit was disarming with the dish. The village wine was typical of the "softer" 2006 vintage - perhaps the type of red Burgundy one may find by the glass all over Cote D'Or, but therein was its effortless charm that makes me an adherent of the "church" of Burgundy.
And so the meal came to an end. It seems that Russian and Japanese cultures have another thing in common - people are somehow inspired to sing at the end of a good meal. As the cutely juvenile Japanese 80's pop music came to the fore, Mao and I couldn't help ourselves in a spontaneous pseudo-karaoke outburst.
I guess with layers unpeeled and spirits lifted, even the quiet Japanese come out of the woodwork to party. My palate expanded, next week I set foot in Tokyo and Kyoto for the first time ever. How appropriate is the timing of this, as never have I been more inspired to learn about a culture. Watch out, Japan, here comes IronC!