Iwa (Sushi), Ginza - Tokyo, Japan
Iwa Restaurant's Chef / Owner, Hisayoshi Iwa
As the world continues to globalize each day towards one great homogenous smorgasbord menu, there remain two salvations for the expression of unique cultural identities that I believe each and every nation must hold sacred: food and drink. This is one of the reasons I urge foodies, who haven't already done so, to put a visit to Tokyo on their bucket list. The preservation of culture through food here goes beyond a way of life and is closer to an act of spiritualism. The other major reason that I so strongly urge food-lovers to make a pilgrimage to Tokyo is that the caliber of cuisine, at its best, is unrivaled by any other culture today. This is partly because menus in Japan remain pure, uncluttered by globalization and trends, created solely in the pursuit of expressing a season, with the finest raw ingredients obtainable and a sense of place. Aren't these same factors the reasons why we cherish the very best wines?
As with all great sushi restaurants in Japan, Chef/Owner Hisayoshi Iwa just does sushi. That's it. Unlike many international sushi restaurants, there are no side orders on the menu of tempura, ramen, donburi or yakitori. Other restaurants in Tokyo are dedicated to each of these dishes or go the kaiseki ryori route, celebrating the pinnacles of season and craft. And thankfully Tokyo itamae (sushi chefs) are not (yet) prone to conjuring up strange mass-market-mongering chimeras like "spicy popcorn shrimp rolls." Perish the thought. In Japan, perfecting sushi is a bit like producing great Pinot Noir; it is all about making the most of the season, sourcing the freshest, best quality raw ingredients and presenting them in such a way that reveals and enhances the gustatory pleasure of them. And so as we say with Pinot, in the production of great sushi there is no place for the itamae to hide flaws.
The long preamble here goes some way of explaining why it can be particularly difficult to describe a wonderfully satisfying experience at a great sushi establishment. It's a bit like trying to describe an emotion to someone who has yet to feel it. Or that epiphany moment when you suddenly "get" what it means to experience, rather than drink, a special wine. It goes beyond taste and satiation; it transports. For this, I highly recommend Iwa. Of the items on Iwa-san's incredibly complex and harmonious set menu offering, his melt-in-the-mouth abalone and chu-toro tuna were most memorable. And though uni for me is always a highlight, Iwa's was to die for.
Sadly, the thriving preservation of Japanese culture through their cuisine is not mirrored so popularly by the country's most traditional and unique beverage offering: sake. Once a booming industry, the number of genuine sake brewers in Japan continues to dwindle as beer and wine sales/production flourish in Japan. I won't pretend to be a sake expert, but I do enjoy drinking recommended examples when I visit Japan, both because they are delicious and they are a window into another culture. In fact, I tried three during my long lunch with friends at Iwa in Ginza, but by far my favorite was Kokuryu's "Black Dragon" Sake from Fukui. This was a very light, floral and citrusy style, served chilled and with tons of freshness that offset the sashimi beautifully. Wine has in fact been produced in Japan for hundreds of years and I've always been personally excited by Japan's "own" wine grape variety: Koshu. (This grape was the topic of my Master of Wine dissertation, which I did while living in Japan.) With lunch we enjoyed a brand new sparkling example of this grape: Fujisan Sparkling Koshu. It was very exciting indeed, offering a great intensity of yeasty, apple and grapefruit flavors and commendable finesse. In fact, because of its acidity, I think it paired slightly better with the sashimi and sushi than the sake, but this is by no means meant to slight the sake, which was generally more complex.
After lunch, I caught up with another set of friends for drinks, including local wine expert and fellow MW Kenichi Ohashi. He brought along a different sparkling Koshu, which perhaps was the first high quality one produced in Japan and the one that drew my attention to this style when I was doing my dissertation: Katsunuma Jyozo Aruga Branca Brilhante Sparkling Koshu. This producer (Katsunuma Jyozo) has improved even since I last tried this wine, with the 2010 possessing greater delicacy and a more savory style than the Fujisan example, but equally good. Uniquely Japan in nature, it rounded off my brief visit to Tokyo on this occasion beautifully.
Note that Iwa restaurant has seven seats only and a Michelin star, so reservations are recommended.
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