On my first day of arrival, I couldn’t wait until the major event in the evening.
Finally when dusk arrived, it was time to head on over and to return to a local legend. It had been at least a good 3 to 4 years since I last came back (and was also the first visit). Couldn’t help but play Al Jarreau’s Moonlighting in my head as I walked towards this familiar structure with the tiny crescent moon in the distant backdrop.
I sat down before my wonderful compadres and gracious host arrived. There was the Master of Smooth working his magic. Like the song “Moonlighting” with the sexy sax and sultry vocals, except this was improv kappo washoku in free form. So happy to be back!!
While waiting, I go through the sake menu and am surprised to see quite an interesting eclectic selection. (If anyone asks, I’d be happy to provide some recommendations from the menu to try)
But because this was a very special meal, I brought along my personal stash to share and to experiment with the food pairings:
On the left: Tatsuriki Akitsu Junmai Daiginjo
On the right: Tatsuriki Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai
both are exported and available through Mutual Trading. However the Akitsu is not the exported version but hand carried by a good friend from Japan (actually he is part of the Honda Shoten family that makes Tatsuriki), so this bottle is as pristine as it comes.
I don’t believe I’ve seen the Kimoto Junmai on LA restaurant menus, but it is an extremely underrated sake. Akitsu you’ll find at Mori Sushi (top of the line), although out of reach for many of us for the restaurant price. Its wholesale is not cheap either.
After my friends arrive, we get re-acquainted and for me also with Yuko san and Shunji san. Opened up the Akitsu first and let that set the tone for the evening!
Akitsu is named after a famed top plot of Yamada Nishiki rice field in Hyogo Prefecture, of which the farmer has a contract with Honda Shoten to provide a certain amount of yield to the brewery to use to make sake. It’s a ridiculously expensive / high cost (and high cost to grow) sake rice. Honda Takeyoshi (former president/chairman of Honda Shoten), who passed away last year, got his PhD in agriculture in his late 70s, and dedicated his time lecturing and also researching into Yamada Nishiki and all its varietals. Honda Shoten has these supreme geek level scientific studies done on the rice crops, yields, nutrient levels (calcium content), so they can figure out the best ways to draw out maximum flavor for their sake in cultivation.
Anyways, Akitsu (one of many plots of Yamada Nishiki rice fields of varying grades) can be kind of thought of like Grand Cru designation for grapes in Burgundy. Actually DRC and grape terroir gave Takeyoshi san inspiration on how to get his sake to be perceived as more high end but also put in the time, effort, passion, and dedication into creating unique flavors for the different types of sake rice they use.
Takeyoshi san was also the pioneer to take things further… the rice field at Akitsu has fertilizer added during cultivation that is made with roasted bonito carcass (head and body only), ground into powder, to impart more umami to the sake rice. Akitsu is also polished to the sweet spot of 35% Junmai Daiginjo level and aged at -3 degrees C for upwards of 7 years. There are not that many bottles made each year and this could have quite a bit of aging potential. This is also why this bottle is priced very high.
Absolutely glorious. Much fuller bodied than I had remembered, very intense astringency and waves of umami expressing the true power of Yamada Nishiki Akitsu, with a long trailing finish which is very rare for many Junmai Daiginjo. I can’t even begin to describe the aroma and couldn’t pick up much fruit. It’s far more robust that I had imagined…can’t help but wonder if the process or quality changed (there are some lucky people who have tasted Akitsu throughout the years and lamented the taste has changed). It actually is now tasting a lot closer to one of their newer offerings, “Kami Tojo” of which that Yamada Nishiki plot is rivaling Akitsu. Fortunately we all enjoyed Akitsu very much! (Phew). The challenge now is to find food (subjectively) that will match and kick things up a few notches. But we ended up being pleasantly surprised…
Shunji san launched our omakase with a series of small plates, focusing on the theme of the summer season.
Memory lapse now on the white fish inside, but in some rice vinegar (good umami element) with junsai (water shield), pickled myoga and wasabi. A little bit of gentle acidity, nicely chilled temperature and textures to whet the appetite! This is where the Akitsu came in a bit strong but eventually over time these equalized a bit with each other. It was like two sexy stone cold hot lovers getting acquainted with one another and doing some ritual dance before the journey to poundtown… except this is food and sake and not a romance novel… unless the novel is called 50 Shades of Kappo Washoku.
Next item, madai 3 ways. Madai sashimi, madai surumi made into noodle strips, and madai aspic (made with the collagen/stock/dashi from madai fat, collar, meat near the bones etc) with okra on top. YUM! At this point our tastebuds are being calibrated towards the Akitsu, and vice versa. The matching is picking up!!
Definitely a lot of fun and enjoyable to have!
An even more fun dish arrived next. Sweet shrimp konbu jime, what tasted like a roasted eggplant in dashi (then chilled), caviar on top, and tofu puree that tasted like smooth soft steamed rich flavored soy milk custard (but chilled). At this point for me the Akitsu got a little crazy with this dish’s interaction, I think it was the tofu primarily, and also the savory and sweet elements of the other ingredients, and made the Akitsu’s flavor more explosive. It’s noticeable at this point that both food and sake are tasting more delicious in a very complementary way.
Next was the magical multiple small bites platter that is akin to what you get at Mori Sushi, except these are bit less traditional, and more on the creative side of kappo ryori. It is almost like the “Hassun” platter you see at some of the NorCal sushi/kaiseki restaurants. As always, expertly arranged and pleasing on the senses!
Let’s see if I got these all right:
The mini crab croquette was phenomenal! Quite explosive with the Akitsu, to my surprise. So small, yet so much flavor! It was almost as if there were flavor profiles of Prosciutto and a little cheese inside as well, intense savory elements.
The little baby river crab is sawagani (fried), delectable crispy little buggers. Haven’t had them in a long time! Used to be the talk of town if a neighborhood sushi bar served these (in addition to watching a chef slap and slam a mirugai around and watch it wriggle but that’s so 1990s).
The conch was very very delicious, great texture from the simmering and chilling. Too bad it was small! Could have used more of them.
Kabocha jello was off the hook!
Fig with saikyo miso sauce was a great blend of California + Japanese, loved it. We thought it was sesame miso at first.
There was also vegetable puree of golden beets, mozuku with a small tomato. At this point I think the Akitsu was working its way in, so the details are fuzzy, and the pairing is getting better and better with these rush of simple delicate yet impactful flavors.
And what’s a meal without a little bit of chilled dashi simmered vegetables? A nice change of pace before launching into the fish courses! No longer can use the excuse that “sushi ginger are vegetables” when accused of not having veggies in a course!
Shunji’s new interpretation for serving matsutake came next and it was quite mind blowing. Instead of the typical matsutake dobinmushi, he steamed it with dashi and hedai (goldlined sea bream) from Kyushu region. They explained that this retains more natural matsutake flavors and texture (I completely agree). And this is where we experienced the true magic of sake pairing, they (the sake geeks in Japan) say that once you figure out the baseline pairing of sake with dashi (for washoku), the rest comes easy, but finding that sweet spot is by no means a cake walk. This is where the match of the dashi right from this course, was the pinnacle for me with the Akitsu that evening, and really blew up the umami in the sake. It was no wonder Maru san of Mori Sushi did say Akitsu was difficult to pair sushi with (even though he carries it in his restaurant). All of this was by calculated instinct, luck of the draw, and BAM finally an earth shattering moment tonight with it!
After that was over, more small delectable bites that paired with sake came next!
Shunji is well known for their eclectic white fish selection, and the start of the sashimi mini fest were two slices of higesoridai (Short barbeled velvetchin) with shaved mullet roe (karasumi). Good with sake!
Then bluefin akami with uni to kick it up a notch.
At this point we couldn’t help but marvel at what Shunji san was preparing. It was a beast!!!
Hokkaido mizudako and from the purplish shoyu/tea coloring, it was unmistakenably sakura-ni preparation. We didn’t ask Shunji san on his preparation technique, but generally sakura-ni is slow simmered in sake, mirin, soy sauce. The color is supposed to resemble cherry blossom petals, hence the word “sakura” in the naming. There are some techniques in the prep for other restaurants where the octopus is massaged with grated daikon, using natural acidity to break down the muscles, some use it for sakura ni, and some do not.
His preparation absolutely does not disappoint! Delicious!
We pretty much polished off the entire bottle of the Akitsu. So now it was time for something bold and bombastic!
Tatsuriki Kimoto Tokubetsu Junmai (Honda Shoten, Hyogo Prefecture). In terms of QPR and value, this sake has to be one of the top ten. So much effort and labor (and time) go into making this sake, and in Japan it basically sells for a tiny fraction of their high end lineup (you can actually find it in Tokyo at Natural Lawson’s). It’s full bodied, a touch funky, super delicious, masculine yet balanced, and also won gold medals in Japan for best in category for warm sake. Super versatile, and even I’ve lost count how many bottles I’ve crushed in the last 2 to 3 years.
Regarding kimoto sake, the reason why it takes twice as long to make as regular sake, is that the yeast starter mash (shubo) needs time to naturally produce lactic acid bacteria. Traditional super old school kimoto requires the use of giant oar paddles to manually mash and stir the puree (the shubo of which also contains rice and koji). Time is also needed (and longer in fact) for fermentation. No lactic acid and yeast are added, unlike with modern and non traditional methods. The Kimoto method creates generally natural and higher acidic brews, but also adds incredible texture, complexity, in some cases “creaminess”.
All this effort and time, and it basically sells for peanuts in Japan, but is an absolute fantastic food sake. Shunji and Yuko also had a taste of this. I also recommend having this bottle with Italian cuisine! Yep, pizzas and pastas…red sauce, ragu. Even a smokey kabocha gnocchi with cream sauce. Heck, this bottle even worked with 85% of the food at Californios!!
At this point, it appears that Shunji switched things up a little so to enable and facilitate the pairing of food with our current sake. Either it was coincidence or just a perfect calculation. Such a master of smooth improv! Hats off to Shunji san either way!
While this may look like a deep fried banana or zucchini bread, this was introduced as Shunji’s special oyster! The interior was oyster and quite possibly made into a puree (with binding of course to hold it together), but deep fried yoshoku style, as the flavors and texture were so on point like kaki fry or a croquette exterior. The center was semi firm and mildly juicy, major flavor bomb. Couldn’t tell what other seasoning went in, but right off the bat, and amazing and perfect match with the Tatsuriki Kimoto Junmai (which is a perfect izakaya sake in itself to handle all the heavy duty items). Normally I would have craved for tonkatsu sauce and Japanese mustard, but this preparation did not need any. Heavenly! And explosive matching!!
The next item was a very interesting combination of what was described as buckwheat (cut into risotto like pieces) with steamed bafun uni. Really unique interplay of flavors and textures! Bravo, and went nicely with the sake too! Shunji has a unique mastery of the right flavors suited for alcohol pairing!
At the risk of hitting the word limit per post, let’s quickly get through the sushi courses:
The consensus on this one appears to be kurodai (updated)
Botan ebi (I’m guessing konbu jime from its firmness and some of that profile). Hmmmmmmmmm! The style of positioning (dangling prawn) is a nod to the original chef of Umi Sushi (2 Michelin star in Tokyo) Nagano san who invented this positioning, and has passed away a few years ago. One of his apprentices is enjoying his own super success at Sushi Amamoto (2 Michelin star) in Tokyo, that positions kurumaebi the same way. This is Shunji’s tribute to that master.
Shunji’s absolutely stunning ikura (dashi centric) always delivers. I remember my previous visit when I asked how it was made, the answer was “a secret!”. This time I directed my question “does this contain xxxxx” (in Japanese) and despite a split second of seeming reluctance, the free form smooth master nodded! Guess you have to ask like a geek and target your questions! I think he volunteered another ingredient but I don’t quite remember. Not sure if it is appropriate to share this here even if there are at least one or two other sushi places that do a similar style with similar approach (different ratios perhaps which I was not privy to), so I’ll leave it at that.
Toro time! Quite well marbeled and from a special cut. Not quite chutoro, but can be treated as such in a way…
Next up, delicious otoro! And to be very specific, the cut known as “snake belly” or jabara. YUMMMMMMMMM
Hokkaido scallop nori burger/taco! I kid…Hotate Isobe with some shari inside. Delish!
Time for some Omega 3’s! Iwashi, and fatty delicious too!
Shunji’s anago is absolutely delicious. The flavor was instantly recognizeable; it is actually steamed with sake and a different preparation than what we are used to! Picked that up right away. With his brushed sauce on top it was supreme! And a nice pairing with the Kimoto Junmai too! To pair with a fuller bodied higher acidity sake, the sushi needs to have stronger flavors and seasonings. Well done!
At this point we were asked if we want anything else. I go off on a tangent and order kanpyo + uni as a temaki. A bit risky since this combo doesn’t always work, but fortunately it was quite splendid here. Unorthodox, but we can thank the retired Mizutani of Sushi Mitzutani Ginza to have come up with this originally! This adheres to the basic sweet and savory (and umami) blending for matching (not talking about with sake). Once you also have properly seasoned rice and good quality seaweed, this is a fantastic blend. In fact I’m craving one right now…
Shunji san gives us all one more piece, and it’s a magical savory boost for sake as well. Mentaiko!
The main set of this symphonic omakase concludes with our choice of soup. We picked “ara jiru” miso, made with the head and carcass of mixed fish. So much going on there! Perfect way to close before dessert.
Dessert? Oh wow…presenting the best of California has to offer (and Shunji’s own unique creations!)
A trio of beautiful grapes from local Japanese farmers!
After the photography we were treated with this humongous platter of fruit and ice creams! Literally OOE dessert platter.
Absolutely gorgeous and delicious local fruit! I swear, many of them taste as good as Japanese department store basement fruit in Japan!!! The grapes had explosive Kyoho flavors (and not the ones from Chile), the cantaloupes some of the best I’ve had in a long time! Loved the truffle ice cream, umeshu sorbet, houjicha too! The rest were still splendid but those stood out for me!
At this point I asked some general questions about Shunji’s special sake “Ichigo”. He told me that he is personal friends with the brewery and requested them to craft a sake to match with his food. Ichigo may be a Suehiro (brewery) Junmai Ginjo (Fukushima prefecture) but apparently the Japan only Suehiro Junmai Ginjo is not built the same way as Ichigo. So Ichigo is in essence a true Shunji/world exclusive that you cannot get anywhere else. Even Shunji said the brewery doesn’t tell him the tech specs (e.g. type of rice, polish ratio, yeast, acidity, dryness etc) and it doesn’t say anything on the label anywhere other than the name “Ichigo”. Private label sake!
Thank you Yuko san and Shunji san for giving us a taste!
It has been years since I last tasted it, and it was a pleasure having it again. My previous memory of this sake has long faded but I found this recent batch to be very delicious! With the right glass it’s supremely aromatic and so easy to drink that you could even have it by itself.
In closing, I want to thank @J_L for hosting this wonderful and unforgettable starting meal and also @CiaoBob for joining! It was a super great time, and getting Shunji’s super A game on the YOLOmakase 2019 edition! Just wow!!!
Shunji is still spot on with his creativity, his ability to come up with different dishes, taking elements of western, washoku and seasonality, and blending them quite effortlessly and making them entirely his own. The small plates, or kappo ko-ryori are all fantastic and make pairings with sake (and I’d argue even with white Burgundy or Alsace) even more fun in a relaxed casual and super comfortable atmosphere. He has his legions of fans for sure.
Loved all the wonderful local/Southern Californian fruit, especially the ones grown by Japanese farmers who can literally recreate on point, what fruit tastes like in Japan. Classic natural way for a washoku meal ending. That truffle ice cream…and I’m not much of a truffle person, but wow. Umeshu sorbet too, ridiculous. So spoilt rotten, again (lol).
There isn’t anything like Shunji in Northern California. So glad to have returned. Thank you to all! Not a bad way at all to start the first night in town!