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News / Life / Food

Try something besides sake or tea with your sushi

High-end restaurants in New York pairing fish with wine and spirits

By Kat Odell, Bloomberg News
Published: April 21, 2023, 5:55am

NEW YORK — Currently, many of New York City’s most sought-after reservations are at elegant, not to mention pricey, sushi counters. These omakase, or chef’s choice menus, range from minimalist, traditional Japanese-style meals, where the fish is simply brushed with soy sauce, to more creative offerings with powerful garnishes such as caviar and kimchi.

In Japan, the pairing of choice is generally green tea or sake. But in New York, high-end Japanese restaurants increasingly believe that wine and spirit pairings should be an option, too.

It’s important enough that new sushi spots like Joji at One Vanderbilt and Kotaru in Midtown West have installed beverage directors to help guide customers. Many places now offer expanded by-the-glass wine options. (Spoiler alert: If you’re looking for one wine that pairs well with almost every sushi order, it’s Champagne.)

Some of the wine lists are extensive. At the Michelin-starred Sushi Noz on the Upper East Side, there are almost 1,000 options, ranging from funky juras from France to fancy bubbles. Beverage director Gene Sidorov says the restaurant’s goal was to “become not only a sushi- but a wine-lovers’ destination.” Around 90 percent of the list is dedicated to wine; the remainder is sake. Sidorov adds that “wines provide a more diverse and unique beverage pairing option” to accompany chef Nozomu Abe’s dishes, which are often inspired by global travels. For instance, his signature grilled langoustine in bouillabaisse was created after a trip to Spain.

When the stylish omakase spot Noda moved to the Flatiron District a year ago, beverage director Jonathan Adler introduced a Champagne-only drinks pairing, which includes five different pours. Adler believes it’s the optimal accompaniment because the wine’s effervescence allows “the taste of the fish to linger harmoniously with the flavor of the Champagne.”

A specific sushi beverage pairing depends on a number of factors: the type of seafood; if it’s been aged and, if so, for how long; whether it’s been seasoned with soy sauce; whether it’s been garnished with fiery wasabi. But there are some overall guidelines that can help ensure that you aren’t ruining the pricey fish that’s about to be handed to you.

Bloomberg Pursuits chatted with drink experts at some of New York’s most acclaimed sushi parlors for their best pairing alternatives to ubiquitous sake.

Fatty tuna like chu-toro or o-toro

The pairing: Dry rosé Champagne or a floral shochu such as SG Kome.

Why: A deeply flavored rosé Champagne is a wonderful accompaniment to fattier sushi, especially luxurious o-toro. Louis Andia, general manager at Nakaji on the Bowery, prefers an aged Champagne (his pricey recommendation is a Dom Perignon rosé). He says the fish’s unctuousness “stands up to the tannins, while the acidity cuts the fattiness.” Alternatively, he recommends shochu, the Japanese grain liquor, particularly one that has notes of yeast and melon.

Shellfish like ebi (shrimp) or scallop (hotate)

The pairing: An herbaceous French sauvignon blanc, such as Pascal Jolivet.

Why: “A well-chilled glass of sauvignon blanc,” says Sushi of Gari manager Tomomi Hiroishi, is the best pairing for sweet shellfish. He’s especially keen on French Sancerre, like the one made by Pascal Jolivet, which has notes of berries and green fruits but isn’t so strong that it overpowers the sweetness of an option such as shrimp.

Lean and mild-flavored fish, like ika (squid) or kinmedia (golden eye snapper)

The pairing: Champagne, preferably a blanc de blancs, such as Champagne Larmandier-Bernier or Krug grand cuvée.

Why: A nonvintage Champagne with subtly nuanced flavors works with the delicate taste of leaner fish. Noda’s Adler says the chardonnay grapes in a blanc de blancs “provides wonderful acidity and minerality to allow the flavors of the nigiri, and its delicate taste, to shine through.”

Semifatty fish, like kanpachi (amberjack) or hamachi

The pairing: Champagne, preferably an aged one such as Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame.

Why: The effervescence, acidity and full-bodied nature of an aged Champagne pairs well with the buttery and velvety texture of fish with a bit of richness. Benjamin Shiau, general manager and sommelier of Kotaru, says the ideal sparkling pairing should also have a yeasty, briochelike aroma with some stone fruit, too.

Roes, like uni or ikura (salmon roe)

The pairing: A nutty-tasting Champagne, such as Vilmart & Cie or Chartogne-Taillet.

Why: Sushi Noz’s Sidorov believes that creamy uni “goes well with an especially textural and savory Champagne.” He recommends one that’s savory and not too acidic, with oxidated flavors that will balance the uni while still carrying its salty minerality.

Oily fish, like saba (mackerel) or aji (horse mackerel)

The pairing: A high-acid sauvignon blanc, like Villa Russiz Superiore’s Collio.

Why: To contrast the richness of the fish, Hisanori Yamamoto, vice president of Icca in Tribeca, suggests a fruity wine with enough acidity to offer contrast. “You’ll appreciate the way the wine’s acidity cuts through the oiliness of the saba, creating a perfect match,” he says.

Sweet seafood, like unagi (freshwater eel) or anago (sea eel)

The pairing: An acid-forward rosé from France, such as Domaine Tempier Bandol.

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Why: Junxi Chen, head sommelier at the new Joji that opened in Midtown, recommends drinking a rosé with enough acidity that can balance out the fatty flavor and texture of eel. Look for one that’s “rich and savory, yet full of bright red fruit and resinous herbs,” like Domaine Tempier Bandol.

Tamago (rolled omelet)

The pairing: Whisky, such as the Macallan Rare Cask.

Why: Tamago is the traditional ending for most omakase meals. So Takuya Kubo, head chef of Sushi Ginza Onodera’s New York outpost, suggests concluding with a high-proof spirit such as a good whisky. He believes that one with smoky notes will accentuate the egg’s natural sweetness. Kubo likes the Macallan Rare Cask because of its deep flavors of raisin and chocolate.