It is that time of the year in Japan, the buzz and energy are palpable throughout the country. Imagine harvest season in Napa Valley but lasting for five months. It is sake brewing season, and the period extends from October until March for 99 percent of the breweries.
With the excitement only compared to a kid going to Disneyland for the first time, I embarked on a last-minute trip to visit Japan and explore its varied landscapes.
The “short but packed right” adventure included an ambitious itinerary organically built with the help of some friends.
If there’s one thing you know about me by now, it is that I’m in love with this part of the world and I highly encourage you to visit.
The goal of the exercise was to explore corners that I hadn’t visited before, but I have studied and enjoyed their sakes over the years.
Upon landing, I met a friend of mine who always knows the right spots to dine and has the pulse on the traditional, yet ever-changing, world of sake.
We met at Izakaya Kotaro in Shibuya, Tokyo. I had heard of this place but hadn’t had the pleasure of visiting — getting a reservation is nearly impossible unless you are repeat customer. This 20-or-so-seat space celebrates Japan’s culinary richness with excellent execution. Chef Kotaro and his passionate team deliver a unique experience paired with some of the most exciting and best-kept-secret sakes.
We didn’t want to miss any of the gems so we ordered ‘Omakase’ (in chef’s hands), which turned out to be just perfect.
As a greeting paired with a welcoming Nama Biru (small draft beer) we had a small dish composed of heirloom white beans, kale and shaved bonito, a flavorful and healthful start.
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Next, a beautifully arranged sashimi selection with octopus, black throat perch and trout served with fresh kabosu citrus, pink salt and grated wasabi, an incredible array paired with Akishika sake from Osaka made with Omachi rice showcasing a lively and zippy style to dance with the sashimi.
Next move: a beautifully balanced salad, which consisted of local lettuces, radishes, mustard grain and a citrus vinaigrette. The party of flavors and textures was delicious and way more exciting than it reads.
Furthermore, our cups were filled with 2018 Taka from Yamaguchi Prefecture, which took us into the next course a true celebration of the season, local anago, salt water eel gently grilled and served with sesame kelp and dried seaweed. Holy smokes, just incredible!
Moving on, one of the dishes worth waiting all year for, ankimo (monkfish liver) creamy and mouth-watering served with a traditional ponzu sauce paired amazingly with Taka.
Moving on, Menchi Katsu, seasoned ground beef breaded and lightly fried that makes for an excellent companion to richer styles sake, in this case a flight from one of the producers celebrating rusticity and flavor, Yorokobi Gaijin from Shikoku. We tried three sakes made from three strains of rice. Unique and texturally appealing.
The next course is certainly an acquired taste not for everyone: Shirako (cod milt) first of the season. It is hard to describe but it’s like having a light fish pudding with a dashi broth. For sake, Sogen Muroka Nama Genshu from Ishikawa prefecture delivering the goods! Bold and aromatic enough to stand to the dish.
Finally, a true celebration of the Japanese culinary world, a dish that has made Kotaro famous. Chilled udon noodles served with a daikon broth with citrus. Chef Kotaro San rolls the noodles every night after service and hangs them overnight to dry. This is the pinnacle of noodles, “al dente” and fluffy paired with the herbal toned Aoshima Tokubetsu Junmai from Shizuoka.
Dinner at Kotaro Izakaya was simply the best way to start this action packed week and best way to trick jet lag. A good night’s sleep thankfully awaited to prepare for the six-cities-in-five-days marathon that started early the following morning.
To be continued next week. Cheers until then!