Let’s say you’re sitting at the sushi bar of your favorite Tsunami Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar location (see Dining). You’ve got spicy tuna rolls on your mind along with a hot bowl of miso soup, an order of baby-back pork ribs with jalapeño and teriyaki glaze, shrimp tempura, aji nigiri, and, oh, let’s say Tsunami’s special Takasaki roll, made with eel, smoked salmon, cucumber, avocado, mango and spicy eel sauce. You’ve just begun to peruse the wine/sake/beer list and, frankly, you’re stumped. Well, I feel your pain.n
I’ve tackled the topic of pairing wine (or beer or sake) with sushi in the past. Frankly, my wine thoughts on the subject keep evolving. In the past, I think I’ve recommended Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Champagne and Sauvignon Blanc as ideal sushi partners—and those are all good bets, generally speaking. But eating at sushi/sashimi restaurants increasingly involves a wide range of flavors, like those that smack you in the face at a restaurant such as Tsunami. It’s not just about raw fish anymore; increasingly, Japanese sushi restaurants tempt diners with everything from monkfish liver and Kobe beef carpaccio to Philly cream cheese-filled maki rolls and sirloin steak teriyaki. There are no simple answers when it comes to selecting wines for this multiplicity of flavors, especially when “fusion” cuisine enters the scene.n
So, I recommend going back to some basic principles. For starters, don’t only think about the main ingredient of a dish. Also take into consideration variables like sauces, seasonings and condiments, all of which are myriad at a Japanese eatery. You might order something as simple, for example, as ebi (shrimp) nigiri—simply lightly steamed or boiled shrimp on steamed sushi rice. So a light, simple wine like Pinot Blanc might be just the ticket, right? Well, not so fast. Chances are you’re going to adorn that ebi with salty soy sauce, maybe spicy and tart wasabi, a little seaweed and then pickled ginger. That pickled ginger alone could wipe out the Pinot Blanc, with simultaneously sweet, fragrant and vinegary undertones. So, maybe Viognier would be a better choice … or Pinot Gris.n
You probably realize by now that I’m not really going to supply any answers here. Better to focus on the way we think about pairing wine with food than offering up easy solutions. After all, there are plenty of wine-and-food-pairing articles and Websites devoted to the topic of what particular wine goes with which specific food. I’m much more interested in the process of getting there.n
That aforementioned Takasaki roll (eel, smoked salmon, cucumber, avocado, mango, etc.) has a lot going on in terms of its flavor profile. There’s the clean, tangy and fresh-tasting citrus component of the cucumber, the smoky element of the salmon, tropical nuances of mango and the almost protein-like texture and fatty flavor of avocado. Given all of that to work with, I might test-drive a slightly smoky South African Chenin-Chardonnay blend, which should cover all the bases. With a complex dish like pork babybacks with teriyaki and jalapeño sauce, I’d look toward a red wine. But given the spiciness and sweetness of the sauce, I don’t think I’d reach for a “regular” red like Zinfandel, Pinot Noir or Cabernet. In fact, I think it would be fun to try something red and also light, like sparkling Shiraz from Australia.n
You may have other ideas, but that’s the fun part. Whether you’re looking to pair wine with sushi, sashimi, grilled elk, braised cabbage or green Jell-O, your imagination and sense of adventure are the only limits.