As recently as a few years ago, dining out for vegetarians in Tokyo was something of a bummer. For strict practitioners, a meal out can feel like a minefield: Every dish must be checked for hidden animal products, such as fish-based dashi broth or cheese made with animal rennet.
These days, many casual and mid-range Tokyo eateries offer a range of meatless options. Though still few in number, there are also a handful of fine-dining establishments serving vegetable-heavy tasting menus.
Even for these high-end restaurants, matching wine with vegetables can present a host of difficulties. Many plants contain high levels of natural sugars, sulfurous compounds or other chemical components that can negatively affect the flavor perception of wine. But perhaps the most vexing issue is how to pair individual dishes that include a variety of vegetables, each with their own distinctive flavors, with a single drink.
I was particularly delighted to discover Faro, a contemporary Italian gem in Tokyo’s Ginza district, taking on this pairing challenge: Its sommelier, Yasushi Honda, complements the deft and delicate cooking of chef Kotaro Noda with a thoughtful selection of wine and sake.
Take, for example, the plate of assorted appetizers that opens the meal at Faro. There’s a thimble-sized fresh spring roll stuffed with fermented beet, a savory miniature cannoli filled with renkon (lotus root) instead of sweetened mascarpone cheese, and a (nonvegetarian) marble of chestnut paste flavored with blue cheese, decorated like a traditional wagashi Japanese confection. With this, Honda cleverly serves 2018 Abe Shuzo Sirius, a semidry sparkling sake from Niigata Prefecture with a relatively low 13 percent alcohol content.
“Many varieties of sparkling sake have strong aromas of yeast that can overpower the flavor of these vegetable dishes, so I looked for sake with softer impact and just a hint of sweetness,” he says.
A mound of potato “spaghetti” atop a pool of buttery sauce and sprinkled with crispy shoestring potatoes — a Noda specialty from his Michelin-starred restaurant Bistrot64 in Rome — pairs with 2001 Anteo Riserva del Poeta Brut Metodo Classico, a complex and elegant sparkling wine from the Oltrepo Pavese region of Lombardy. The age on the wine lends roundness and depth that works wonderfully with the richness of the dish.
Noda’s blue risotto in gorgonzola sauce, which derives its stunning color from purple cabbage, is a match for the 2016 Alto Adige Baron Longo Wellenburg Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot Cuvee, a powerful and fruit-forward red with ripe tannins and balanced acidity. The wine’s heft and sweetness highlight the salty, spicy and umami flavors of the cheese, but since gorgonzola is made with animal rennet, strict vegetarians should ask to swap this dish.
Honda and his beverage team also offer a list of inventive nonalcoholic pairing choices. The combination of steamed red pepper “chorizo” draped over bread soaked in red pepper essence and sprinkled with smoked paprika, together with hibiscus tea infused with mint and spiked with guava kombucha, is delicious and surprising.
A blushing pink blueberry-juice cocktail flavored with juniper berry, star anise and pink pepper is an equally formidable partner for the blue risotto, while slightly smoky, aged bancha (coarse green tea) harmonizes with the rosemary-scented chickpea and chestnut “Mont Blanc” covered in chickpea cream and dotted with fresh marjoram. The key, Honda says, is to use tea with “gentle tannins” that will create a smooth mouthfeel.
In order to accommodate more guests with dietary restrictions, Faro recently launched a vegan menu. The relative lack of proteins and fats in vegan cuisine make it especially tricky to pair, but I’m sure Honda is more than up to the challenge.
Shiseido Bldg. 10F, Ginza 8-8-3, Chuo-ku 104-0061; 03-3572-3911; faro.shiseido.co.jp; open Tue.-Sat. 12-1:30 p.m. (L.O.), 6-8:30 p.m. (L.O.); closed Sun., Mon., hols.; lunch from ¥5,000, dinner from ¥12,000; nearest station Shinbashi; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; English menu; English spoken