Drink locally, eat bountifully: It’s a rule of thumb that has served us very well over the years in Japan. Places that specialize in good nihonshu invariably serve food of similar quality. So it would stand to reason that, if a brewer of fine jizake were to open its own restaurant, then the results would be outstanding.
Such is definitely the case with the Kumazawa Brewing Company, a small kura (brewery), founded 133 years ago close to the coast of Sagami Bay. Kanagawa Prefecture may not be noted for its sake — the winters are too mild — but the nearby Tanzawa mountains provide a source of good water, always the most vital criterion for brewing Japan’s traditional tipple.
Until recently, Kumazawa was languishing in obscurity, close to joining the thousands of other regional kura that have gone belly up since 1945. But thanks to a combination of new, dynamic management and changes in the brewing laws, it has reinvented itself to become one of the most innovative small-scale brewers in the Kanto region.
The strategy was simple. They decided to start producing premium sake instead of cheaper grades, investing in new brewing equipment and building new facilities. Then, embracing the jibiiru boom of the 1990s, they opened a small microbrewery, producing well-crafted beers of note. Best of all, from our perspective at least, they set up a couple of excellent restaurants to showcase the skill of their brew masters.
It’s an obscure location, out on a plain that was once farmland but is now a suburb of Chigasaki (itself a “bed town” for Tokyo), reached by a meandering, single-track railway line. But the effort and adventure of getting there is worth it, once you enter the brewery’s neatly landscaped precincts.
To the left, a rustic path leads to Tensei, their Japanese restaurant, named for their flagship brand of sake. On the right, you see the entrance to Trattoria Mokichi (from the name of the current company president). Both are housed in old warehouses that have been beautifully converted, albeit in very different ways. Both are remarkably sophisticated for such an out-of-the-way location.
If we currently prefer Tensei, it’s because autumn is the best season for Japanese ryori (cuisine). But any time of year this would be a wonderful setting for sampling sake that couldn’t possibly be fresher. This cavernous chamber, which once housed huge sake vats, has been broken up into small dining spaces — cozy alcoves upstairs for couples; long tables on the ground floor for larger groups; and a raised area in one corner where you sit on zabuton cushions on a hard wood floor around a circular irori hearth.
The weathered beams have been expertly matched with newer timbers. The lighting is subtle; retro artifacts are matched with modern folk art; the platters and serving vessels are stylish and contemporary. This, of course, is the look aspired to by numerous washoku dining bars in Tokyo. The difference here is patina — almost a century of it — and a comfortable lack of hurry that reflects the rural setting.
Tensei serves elaborate multi-course set dinners of modern kaiseki (up to 10,000 yen per head; order ahead of time), but many of our fellow diners were local people who seemed happy to settle in with the basic three-course omakase meal (for just 3,000 yen). We followed suit and found it a good, simple way to find out just how good the kitchen is here.
The elaborate plate of zensai starters included a chilled soy milk potage with green edamame beans; a washoku “salad” of Kyoto greens, ikura roe and slivers of salmon jerky; and a small bowl of mixed sashimi. Good sake was called for and promptly delivered: Tensei Kuramoto Hizo-shu, a fragrant, subtle daiginjo served in an ice-cold pewter jug (1,500 yen and wonderful).
Our main platters, brought to the table simultaneously, comprised grilled kama (“neck”) of three different fish, and small chunks of pork meat simmered down in a rich miso sauce, which demanded a more robust grade of sake — there are more than half a dozen to choose from, including a tasting set of four for 1,200 yen. Rice, miso soup and a small dessert rounded off a fine meal that was light but nicely balanced.
But if it’s Kumazawa’s Shonan Beer you want to sample, not sake, then Trattoria Mokichi is definitely the better option. Here the decor is Western post-industrial, with high ceilings and funky furniture, including a couple of tables made from converted writing desks.
The menu is casual, beer-garden Italian, with pride of place given to the new wood-fired pizza oven that was installed earlier this year. They also rustle up some fine meat and fish dishes worthy of any French bistro in Japan.
The oven crew have their dough technique down well, turning out Neapolitan-style pies that are crisp and chewy in all the right places, with attractive mottled-brown crusts. We dropped in for lunch recently for a very good prosciutto and rucola pizza that was close to excellent, marred only by their heavy hand with the green peppercorns.
If it had been evening, we wouldn’t have minded; we’d have just ordered a few more beers to sluice off our taste buds. The menu lists five different styles, all German in inspiration, though only three were on tap on that occasion. The Bitter is refreshingly hoppy, but not overbearing; the Ruby is a rich, malty beer; and the dark Liebe is a rather anemic Schwartz beer. All are easy to drink, without being too insistent in flavor, which means they do not overwhelm the food.
Three further points for which Mokichi deserves top marks: As at Tensei, we found the staff consistently friendly, well trained and attentive. There are two small terrace areas outside that should be perfect for sunny lunchtimes, just as soon as the mosquitoes have disappeared. And they serve a brilliant selection of bread, all from the in-house bakery, of which our favorite was a German-style country bread leavened with beer yeast, to which (contrarily) they give a French name, Pain a la Biere.
Next weekend, Kumazawa Brewing Company will be hosting its annual Oktoberfest. For adults, 4,000 yen will purchase two hours of unlimited eating and quaffing of specially brewed festival beer. Jazz will be played, pizzas dispensed and a good time should be had by the assembled multitudes. Expect crowds and get there early. The dates are Oct. 15: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m., last entry 7 p.m.; Oct. 16: 11:30 a.m.-8 p.m., last entry 6 p.m.
Earlier this year, Kumazawa opened a branch of its trattoria close to Chigasaki JR Station. It too has stylish modern decor, a spacious terrace and a wood-fired pizza oven, but also serves more Asian-influenced dishes, plus, of course, the full range of Tensei sake and Shonan Beer.