Things have changed quite a bit since the early days of this country’s love affair with sushi. Back in the day, most (American) sushi-bar customers were content with drinking hot sake with their sushi. Today, many know to drink only lesser-quality sake hot, and to drink the good stuff cold/cool. But there are some experts who suggest avoiding sake with sushi altogether, saying that the flavors in sake—which is made from rice—can clash with the sushi rice. Personally, I’m just not all that fond of sake, premium or otherwise, so I tend to veer toward the beer and wine lists in Japanese restaurants.
While I probably wouldn’t recommend a big Porter or Double Bock with sushi and sashimi, I do think there’s a place for beer at the sushi bar. That’s why you find so many big bottles and cans of Kirin, Sapporo and such being served. These are fairly light lagers, which do little to smother the subtle tastes of sushi. However, they do little to enhance it, either. I’d certainly stay away from heavy beers, but think that Czech-style Pilsner, India Pale Ale and even Hefeweizen are brews that can work with sushi, especially rolls with not-so-delicate sauces.
When it comes to wine, there’s a vast array of wines (mostly white) that work. I used to be somewhat narrow-minded when it came to wine recommendations for sushi and sashimi. But, over the years, I’ve come to enjoy a wide range of wines in Japanese eateries; there’s even a place for Pinot Noir, in my opinion.
I used to recommend crisp, palate-cleansing wines for sushi such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chablis, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Grüner Veltliner, for example. And I still do. Sauvignon Blanc, in particular, is a no-brainer with almost any fish and seafood, and I’ll always be happy with a glass of an austere, acidic, crisp white wine with just about anything from the sushi bar. But there are other options. I also enjoy a glass of crisp, dry Champagne or other sparkling wine with my favorite rolls or nigiri; just stay away from the sweet stuff (sec) in favor of leaner, dry bubbly (brut). I especially like the snap, crackle, pop sensation of fizzy bubbles on the palate along with the tiny explosions of eating flying- fish eggs (tobiko).
Increasingly, I find a lot of sushi chefs these days like to serve sashimi in particular, but also nigiri, topped with subtle, but fragrant sauces that are often citrus-based, like ponzu. This is a perfect time to haul out a fragrant, floral, tropical and sometimes spicy wine such as Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Rhône-style white blends and the like. An exotic domestic white like Conundrum or Tables Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc, for example, lends exotic appeal and a little fruitiness to sushi-bar items like Dojo’s S.I.S. roll, which incorporates asparagus, spicy crab, avocado, salmon, thin-sliced lemon and ponzu sauce.
Obviously, there’s a place for red wine with menu items such as Wagyu and Kobe-beef dishes, teriyaki preparations, pork belly, cooked salmon and such. But I have also found that the moderate tannins, lower alcohol and subtle mineral elements of good Pinot Noir—especially from Burgundy—pair well with what’s been called the “sixth” flavor: umami. An absolute slam-dunk pairing is Pinot Noir and ankimo, which is monkfish liver, served pâté-style at restaurants like Takashi and The Aerie sushi bar at Snowbird. It’s a lot like eating foie gras, which is always excellent with quality Pinot Noir.
So the next time you enjoy sushi, try to look beyond the sake and suds.