From California-style cafes to French bistros, international restaurants in Tokyo possess world-class wine lists. But if consumers’ experience of wine is limited to their forays into international gourmet dining, it will remain an exotic, special-occasion beverage. To establish a comfortable home for itself in Japan, wine must find its way into less rarefied, local environments. It must make friends with Japanese cuisine, flirt with yakitori or sashimi — or perhaps leap into an illicit liaison with tonkatsu.
In the current series of Vineland columns, we’re exploring Tokyo venues that successfully pair wine with Japanese cuisine. Our last column reported on Torifuji, a yakitoriya/wine bar in the bustle of Ginza. This week, we headed to a quieter corner of town — a side street in Nakameguro, site of the sleek, “nouvelle Japanese” restaurant Showa Society.
A recent Tokyo trend has been the reinterpretation of Japanese dining by hip, young restaurateurs and sommeliers. These folks have seen the world but found their way back to Japan. They serve nihonshu, shochu and wine with equal confidence. We’re thinking, for example, of places ranging from Quienquerra (a dusky bar in an old timber house in Shirokane;  346-0609) to Lucky Restaurant (proprietor Ro Shiou’s funky Japanese home-cooking set in a nostalgic 1950s Azabu Juban house;  5484-8075). On Shirokanedai’s Platina-dori, a new, retro-chic ramen shop offers a basic selection of sparkling wine, Valpolicella and Soave to accompany bowls of savory broth and noodles (Ramen, 5-17-1 Shirokanedai;  3445-4231). Showa Society fits into this category of nouvelle Japanese places that discover inspiration in tradition — and then render it vibrant, seductive and new.
The folks at Showa Society offer contemporary riffs on classic Japanese dishes. They source fresh, quality ingredients from around Japan and serve their cuisine on a handsome collection of yakimono(Japanese pottery). Sit on tatami around a horikotatsu (under the low table is a comfortable well for the feet). In the larger adjoining room, there’s a mixture of candlelight, ikebana, polished wood floors and Chinese and Japanese furniture. On a balmy summer night, reserve one of the outdoor tables on the spacious terrace. Alfresco evenings in Tokyo rarely come with such tranquillity.
Wine fits into this picture with ease. Instead of a wine list, you are ushered to Showa Society’s bar to peruse a small, but diverse wine collection displayed on polished wood shelves. You can choose something at your leisure, and the wines have been selected to go with the food. There is a choice between nine reds and nine whites — split equally between New and Old World wine regions (with most priced around 4 yen,000/bottle). Sommelier Jun Arai stands ready to advise; he personally seems to have a predilection for spicy, rich red wines. Among the current choices are 1998 Cuvee Sextant Corbieres (4,500 yen); 1998 Beronia Rioja (4,000 yen); 1998 Herencia Remondo Rioja (4,500 yen); and 1988 Domaine du Haut des Terres Blanches Cha^teauneuf-du-Pape (10,000 yen).
White wines include 1998 Fleith Pinot Gris from Alsace (4,500 yen); the 2000 Chantet Blanet Entre-deux-Mers (3,800 yen); and 1998 Bouchard Finlayson Chardonnay (3,500 yen) — the result of a joint venture between Paul Bouchard of Burgundy and South African winemaker Peter Finlayson.
Set dinner courses (Meiji course, 3,500 yen; Taisho course, 4,500 yen; and Showa course, 6,000 yen) provide a sampling of this updated Japanese fare. We began with a trio of creamy, custard-like tofus (all made at the restaurant), sprinkled with tiny, salted dried shrimp. We also tried the ginmedai sashimi, seasoned with olive oil, fresh green herbs, capers and crushed red peppercorns. At Arai-san’s suggestion, we paired these dishes with a snappy 2000 Domaine de la Perriere Sancerre (5,500 yen). The wine’s vibrant citrus-and-herb Sauvignon Blanc character resonated with these dishes.
A variety of braised mushrooms served with thinly sliced, dried konnyaku was an inspired match for a 1998 Jose Ferrer Tinto Crianza from Mallorca (4,500 yen). The wine’s savory, plum and ink flavors gave a spicy lift to the meaty, earthy richness of the mushrooms and konnyaku. It also worked well with the mase-gohan, rice studded with diced shiitake, chicken, chives and carrots.
For dessert, we strayed from our wine agenda. We could not resist tasting the homemade kajitsushu (fruit liqueurs), stored invitingly in large glass jars at the bottom of the wine shelves. Among the varieties are ume, pear, lemon and shikuwasa (our favorite, this Okinawan citrus fruit tastes of lime and green herbs and, in this form, smells rather like dry white vermouth).
The pure, bright flavors of Showa Society’s cuisine go effortlessly with wine. The pairing seems natural, not contrived. The savvy folks here are clearly at ease in the world of wine. In turn, they have made a comfortable place for wine to belong in their contemporary Japan.
Showa Society, 1-3-5 Nakameguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3713-7431
Wine of the week
A good summer wine should be low in alcohol and provide a lift of acidity to refresh the palate. Consider a beautiful New Zealand Riesling: the 2001 Felton Road Riesling from Bannockburn, Central Otago (2,200 yen at Nissin in Higashi Azabu,  3583-4586; or contact importer Village Cellars at  106-876 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
Felton Road’s vineyards are surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and the fruit ripens with long, sunny days, cool nights and low rainfall. This winery takes an organic approach to viticulture and applies a low-intervention, handcrafted ethic to its winemaking.
This seductive Riesling has just 8.5 percent alcohol and is richly perfumed with aromas of lily, honey, tangerine and a faint, earthy petrol character. In the finest tradition of good Riesling, it combines full, peach and nectarine fruit flavors with a succulent, snappy lime finish. It is on tight allocation in Japan, so get it while you can.
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