A toast to the arranged marriage of Champagne and 'kaiseki'

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

I didn’t protest when my friend Katrine suggested — apropos of nothing — that we order a bottle of Champagne one afternoon last week. The marvelously warm and sunny weather, combined with the fact that I had finally begun to recover from a debilitating cold, provided justification for the extravagance. Champagne has a way of transforming mundane occurrences into tiny celebrations.

“Any time is the right time for Champagne,” Katrine said, filling our glasses. “You can drink it when you’re happy, but also when you’re sad.”

“I think of Champagne as inherently hopeful because it brings to mind new beginnings,” I added — the bubbly had clearly brought out our inner philosophers.

Of Champagne’s many virtues, one of the most notable is its ability to work well with virtually any kind of cuisine. When I heard about Kanade, a new dining bar in Tokyo’s Ginza district serving kaiseki ryōri (multicourse Japanese cuisine) paired exclusively with Champagne, I was eager to try it. Although many kaiseki restaurants serve wine in addition to sake, few offer a wide selection of Champagne. The list at Kanade features up to 200 varieties, many of which are prestige cuvees and limited-edition vintage bottles.

Owner Makoto Abe, who also runs the Salon de Champagne Vionys specialty bar also in Ginza, is a sommelier with an impressive career. In 2002, he won the All Japan Best Sommelier Competition, and now serves as the executive director of the Japan Sommelier Association. Abe came up with the concept for Kanade after noticing that many of his friends in the wine business brought bottles of Champagne to drink with Japanese food at informal gatherings.

The restaurant’s name means “harmony,” and Abe strives for precision in his pairings. In the traditional approach to matching Japanese cuisine, primacy is given to the food; drinks usually play a secondary role. Not so at Kanade, where chef Tomoko Hinode tweaks recipes to allow the Champagne to sparkle.

When I visited Kanade a few weeks ago, Delamotte Blanc de Blanc 2000, a hard-to-find release sold only in Japan, was served with takenoko no surinagashi (a thick soup of pureed bamboo shoots) made with a Champagne reduction. The herbal edge of the Delamotte echoed the woody flavor of the bamboo, and the Champagne’s yeasty notes enhanced the dish’s subtle umami. An assortment of small dishes highlighted different aspects of Philipponnat Royal Reserve Brut Rose NV. Fukinoto (butterbur) tempura accentuated the Champagne’s smoky minerality, while sea bream sashimi, topped with a small wedge of Kiyomi orange and accented with tarragon and nasturtium blossoms, brought out the Champagne’s citrus and strawberry flavors. The Philipponnat also worked wonderfully with a dish of grilled blowfish, shirako (smelt) and deep-fried baby ayu (sweetfish) dabbed with sour plum paste.

The prix-fixe tasting menu costs ¥10,000, and the pairing option, which consists of five glasses of Champagne, is also ¥10,000. After 9 p.m., you can order from the a la carte menu. Flutes of Champagne start at a reasonable ¥1,500, so no need to wait for a special occasion.

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