FUKUOKA — Think about how you enjoy red wine. With a tasty pasta dish or rich gamey stew, perhaps? Well, how about sushi? Few would answer yes to this one — unless they were culinary ninja, as creative director Daisuke Utagawa of Washington, D.C.’s first sushi restaurant Sushi-Ko, describes himself. And he’s bursting with enthusiasm to let the world know how well the two match.
Japanese-born Utagawa oversaw his second international event in which exclusive pinot noir wines from Burgundy were teamed with his inspired Japanese cuisine. The gala dinner was held March 23 at the five-star Grand Hyatt Fukuoka hotel, one of only seven of its kind in the world and the only one in Japan, as part of a series introducing the wines of Britain’s oldest wine merchant, the 300-year-old Berry Bros. & Rudd.
Utagawa holds that, contrary to popular belief, many red wines suit Japanese food beautifully. Although dishes such as sushi are delicate, they are rich in umami, which emphasizes red wine’s fruitiness while canceling its tannin qualities. Umami is the sixth flavor of food, and while the term isn’t used in Western cooking, it technically refers to the taste protein has on the tongue. In contrast, white wine has a fruity acidity that can literally cook fragrant fish dishes in the mouth, killing their umami.
Utagawa favors Burgundy red wines (all pinot noir) because they best enhance umami and his “cuisine of subtraction,” the basis of Sushi-Ko restaurant’s philosophy. “These wines are produced in a way that enhances the best of each grape, never masking differences from year to year,” says Utagawa. Japanese cooking similarly enhances exquisite ingredients using as few extras as possible, the way ikebana flower-arranging sculpts a stem to perfection.
In contrast to cuisine of subtraction, many cuisines tend to be a sum of complex parts. For example, salt is known to emphasize the “fish” taste of fish, and Japanese sashimi achieves this by dipping the fish in soy sauce. But Utagawa provides the salt element separately, placing the fish alongside caviar or rolling sashimi slices around aspic. In his words, “the different foods can speak to each other” this way.
The result is a cuisine that is highly visual — beautiful ingredients are served simply and with unusual accents. Here, Utagawa takes a step back to extol the creativity and expertise of Sushi-Ko chef Duncan Boyd, and partner and executive chef, Tetsuro “Tetchan” Takanashi, the brains of Sushi-Ko’s kitchen who brought off the striking dinner with the help of the hotel’s expert banquet team. The three had hand-picked all ingredients together at Fukuoka’s gourmet Yanagibashi markets, then planned the menu, delighted with the squid, bream, meats and vegetables they found.
Along with dishes featuring creamy ankimo, and prawn sashimi with caviar, was a wonderful sushi platter of fine, dark fish on rice with just enough wasabi. A dab of soy sauce tinted with mirin outraged one or two sushi purists in the room, but enhanced the sweet character of the fish. Two spirited, meaty dishes followed, including roasted fugu with a buttery sea urchin sauce to emphasize the fish’s boldness. The meal ended with two superb desserts. A sweet mustard-seed ice cream with tangy tomato jelly had guests squealing in surprise but scooping up every mouthful.
The wines provided by Berry Bros. & Rudd were impeccable. They included the crisp, acidic ’94 Ruchottes Chambertin Armand Rousseau with the fugu, and the strong velvety ’87 Nuit St. George Clos de Florets Domaine de L’Arlot for a beef dish. Utagawa’s signature was the unconventional pairing of sushi with the prized ’95 Chambolle Musigny Les Feusselots Louis Jadot Premier Cru. The idea had initially horrified French vintners, but the combination is so perfect it won Utagawa loyal converts there — and convinced Grand Hyatt Food and Beverage Manager, Adam Simkins, that Fukuokans would love it too.
When Utagawa created a similar feast in Burgundy last November, these vintners, whom he had long wanted to convince how well his food suited their wine, broke into song at the end of the meal. Fukuokans are a little shy — blissful smiles broke out instead.
“It was good fun — and superb!” exuded one gourmand who had been curious about the event.
“The wines really complemented the Japanese food,” said Alun Griffiths, wine director of Berry Bros. & Rudd, “and I hope this helps change people’s attitudes about combining the two.”
Wine is often listed on menus in Japan these days (although it still comprises only 3 percent of alcoholic beverages sold nationally). But Utagawa insists that his cuisine is different — catering to real needs, not just rearranging ingredients.
“We want to become food ‘problem solvers,’ ” Utagawa says, “even designing food for airlines and hospitals.” Training as a sushi chef taught him to consider customers individually. For example, a tired businessman is different from a tired golfer.
Despite Sushi-Ko’s business success, Utagawa is passionate mostly about developing his cuisine as an art form. “Our cuisine is about carving, not dressing ingredients — in art terms, more like a Rothko painting than a Van Gogh,” says Utagawa, and he’s delighted to share it with adventurous fellow gourmands he has met in the U.S., France and, now, Fukuoka.
Intriguing new plans are brewing, including more activities in France and perhaps a book that will evoke his food through sensual print and photos. He is inspired by the way architects or artists use color or shape, but only food, says Utagawa, involves all five senses. “I’d love to collaborate — [we could] become conceptual designers of food!”