August 20, 2010

Tokyo 2010 day 1: Drunken onion

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The ride into Tokyo was uneventful, and I checked in to a large and comfortable room at the Peninsula.  After taking every possible shot of every angle of every corner of the bathroom, it was time to head out and get some food.  I'd very recently came upon an izakaya thanks to a fellow blogger in Taiwan who writes only about sake, and the only thing to do was to check it out for myself!

It wasn't exactly easy to find.  Sake Tamanegiya (酒たまねぎや) is tucked in the back streets in a typical Japanese neighborhood - meaning it's not on a main thoroughfare (one that actually has a name) and the only way to find it would be to turn on my iPhone's GPS and constantly referencing my position relative to my destination.  Anyone who's ever been to Japan knows the frustration of navigating around the archaic system of addresses, so I shouted a little "Hooray!" when I finally recognized the façade I'd seen on the web.

The hotel had called ahead to reserve a space for me, and I sat down at the bar in the small establishment.  I hadn't bothered reading the descriptions on Tabelog (食べログ), and I didn't realize how small the place was... 8 seats at the bar, plus another 6 at the tables.  Space was pretty tight, taken up mostly by the amazing stock of alcohol in the establishment.  I use the word alcohol because the owner doesn't just collect sake.  There was a whole fridge taken up by the most amazing collection of Madeira I had ever seen - one that I'd only read about on For the Love of Port or in Michael Broadbent's book.  1795 Terrantez?  Yup, got it.  Didn't ask if the bottle was from Barbeito, though... Oh and that fridge also had a few other bottles, like Lafite, Yquem, DRC... the usual stuff.

I wanted to start off easy so I ordered something simple to start - on the dry side.  The Takijiman Show Special (滝自慢 鑑評会出品酒) was definitely on the dry side, with the sharp alcohol showing a little.  The nose was classic tropical fruit, with banana and pear.  Finish was on the long side.  A daiginjo (大吟醸) with seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 40%.  21BY.

Kissho Show Special (喜正 鑑評会出品酒) - supposedly dry but actually sweeter and softer than the Takijiman, and rounder, more fragrant with fruit on the nose.  Then you'd do a double-take as you find it actually sharp and a little hot as it trickles down the back of your throat... Daiginjo with seimaibuai of 35%. 21BY.

Master brings out a little plate of marinated squid, which is so classic.  Can't believe he was worried I wouldn't be able to handle the taste...

To cleanse my palate, Master poured me a glass of water.  Not just any water, but 仕込水 from the Yoronotaki (養老の滝) waterfall in Gifu Prefecture, and bottled under the well-known sake brand of Reisen (醴泉).  This is the same water used to make all the Reisen sake, and it tasted so clear and refreshing... what a treat!

I asked Master for some sashimi, and he gave me a bit of everything.  I was overwhelmed by the variety, and especially by the different cuts which you just don't see outside of Japan.  Before Master opened up his izakaya - now in its second incarnation and 25th year - he started his career working in a sushi restaurant.  No wonder.  There was honmaguro kama (本マグロカマ) - the well-marbled neck of Japanese tuna; bits from the top of the tuna's head; kama from offshore tuna; marbled flounder (真子鰈), some pieces rubbed with lime; really fresh squid, and the big pile of yummy wasabi which Master ground up.  The Hokkaido uni was marinated in salt water.

Then there were the pieces of tuna cheek, which was surprisingly a little crunchy.  The mackerel (鯖) has got to be the best I've ever had, devoid of the oily, fishy taste that I do love.  The fish has been marinated in a mix of vegetable juice, which explains the subtle flavors.

In lieu of the ubiquitous strands of radish often accompanying sashimi, Master chooses to use onions from Awajishima (淡路島), his hometown.  The onions were sweet and not at all spicy, and is of course appropriate - being the name of the the place after all... There was also some myoga ginger (茗荷), which isn't really a root like ginger but rather a flower bud.  It does share similar tastes with ginger, though.

I move on and order Eau du Désir (別誂) from Kamoshibito Kubeiji (醸人 九平次), bottled in 2009.  This was fairly rich on the palate, initially sweet but became drier mid-palate and on the finish.  It was even a little bitter on the tip of the tongue...  Junmai daiginjo (純米大吟醸) with semaibuai of 35%.

These tomatoes from Chiba Prefecture (千葉県) were fresh and delicious.  Unlike what we see in a lot of Japanese restaurants elsewhere, these tomatoes were not overripe.  They were kinda firm to chew on, and the seeds were even slightly on the unripe side.  Very refreshing, though... and a good way to cleanse the palate.

I sidetrack to something really interesting... The Bijofu Yuzu Liqueur (美丈夫ゆずリキュール) is a favorite here.  Everyone seems to order it.  It's poured into a larger wine glass over crushed ice.  One only has to be close to the glass to enjoy the full perfume of this wonderful citrus fruit.  It's a sake-based liqueur with low alcohol content and on the sweet side, which is why it's served with ice.  The perfume was amazing, and I kept wanting to have the citrus explosion in my mouth...  Master was kind enough to tell me where to go get some.  Let me see how much of it I can get my hands on...

The next one was also a little different - this bottle came with a custom label, showing Master at work.  This was the Bijofu Mai Yamada Nishiki Usunigori (美丈夫 舞 山田錦 うすにごり), a junmai ginjo namasake (生酒) that's unfiltered and with a little fizzy carbonation.  Nose was totally bananas and fermented rice.  Seimaibuai of 50%.

I picked out a chunk of tuna neck (カマ) for the chef to grill, and it came served with a yuzu-flavored sauce and plenty of chopped spring onions.  The fat of the tuna has now been liquefied, and the yummy collagen in the crevices of the bones also added a lot of round mouthfeel.  This was really good stuff!  And it goes really well with a bowl of rice and a few pieces of nori (のり).

When I was almost done with the rice, Master came over with a small plate of pickled cucumber.  This was no ordinary oshinko (お新香)... The cucumber was marinated by Mrs. Yamada, whose husband owns the brewery which produces Gikyo (義侠 ).  Thanks to the marinade containing the brewery's sake in addition to soy sauce, the pickles were very complex in flavor.  Mrs. Yamada does not sell her pickles, but had obviously given them to Master for his clients.

Next was a trio of top-of-the-line sakes, basically the rarest and most expensive on the menu.  Drinking them side-by-side was definitely a treat.

Hatsukame Show Special (初亀 鑑評会出品酒) - powerful nose of banana, fragrant, almost like Chinese white wine (白酒) made from grains... some pear also in the nose.  Very smooth in the mouth, slightly dry mid-palate but kinda sweet at the same time.  Very long finish, and really rich in terms of palate and nose.  This is a daiginjo namasake (大吟醸 生酒) with the total production of 33 bottles, all of which were acquired by Master.  The previous vintage had a production of 34 bottles, and was also entirely taken up by Master.  21BY.  From a fresh bottle.

Isojiman Nakatori Junmai Daiginjo 35 (磯自慢 中取り 純米大吟醸 35) - very smooth but suddenly became slightly dry in mid-palate, turning smooth again on the finish.  Very light and fragrant - an easy wine to drink any time.  Bottled in 2009, with seimaibuai of 35%.  From a fresh bottle.

Gikyo Tae (義侠 妙) - smooth on the palate but a bit alcoholic.  Definitely the most powerful of the trio, and certainly needed to be tasted last.  This was another rarity, being a blend of several vintages of koshu (古酒) and limited to a production of 300 bottles per year.  Master has been buying them since the wine began to be produced and has a complete vertical.  I believe this one was bottled last year, and Master seems to have forgotten the exact vintages in the blend.  A junmai daiginjo with seimaibuai of 30%.

I was already really happy to have had all these rare sakes, but I know Master has a ton of old stock I ask for one last glass of koshu, something that's around 20 years or so.  My very first experience with koshu - at Akaoni (赤鬼) 3 years ago - blew my mind.  The liquid in that bottle wasn't clear but came out a dark burgundy, and smelled like Shaoxing (紹興酒).

Master was kind enough to treat me (he laughed as he said "サービス") to a glass of Johji (醸児).  This wine was made in 1978 and released as a daikoshu (大古酒) after 12 years. Master acquired it 20 years ago upon release.  This was his last remaining bottle, and what was poured into my glass (and the glass of my neighbor, clearly a regular customer) pretty much emptied out the bottle.

This nectar was amazing... you could see the viscosity as Master poured it into my glass.  And the nose... it was pure Huadiao (花雕) wine, with that telltale salty plum (話梅) nose, and it was even salty on the palate and definitely salty on the finish.  Thanks to the 30% alcohol level, the finish was also alcoholic, spicy and hot.  Amazingly, the color was still very light after more than 30 years, unlike the koshu I had 3 years ago.  What a treat!

I was a very happy man by the end of the evening, and thought it was amazing that such a place existed in the middle of nowhere in Tokyo.  Master was a very jovial man and treated me as well as he would treat any regular, and I felt very privileged to make his acquaintance.

I asked the taxi driver to drop me off halfway back to the hotel, and walked for a while along the moat of the Imperial Palace (皇居).  A pair of swans swam towards my direction, wiggling their tails looking for a treat.  The leaves of the weeping willows swayed to the gentle, cool evening breeze.  A perfect end to a perfect evening.


Richard said...

Thanks Peter for sharing this amazing find. I went there with a few friends yesterday. Such a great gem Yamanegiya is and the boss definitely expanded my horizon in sake appreciation.

Peech said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I was chastised by someone for posting the name on the web, because people wanted to keep it a secret...


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