The clean, delicate flavours of sushi and sashimi are now as popular with the snack-food crowd as with the set that valet park their Maseratis at Nobu. Japanese (and Japanese-ish) restaurants have proliferated - London alone has more than 160. Much of the popularity, not only in the capital but across the UK, is down to chains such as Yo! Sushi, which has 23 UK branches. But it's not just sushi, of course. Wagamama, another chain, has brought Japanese noodles and rice dishes to the masses, and high-end restaurants such as Nozomi, Matsuri and Umu offer a broader selection, and interpretation, of Japanese food.
At another of London's top Japanese restaurants, Zuma, the cool, rectangular, glass-topped stone bar offers 30-odd cold sakes, and one hot for those who don't know their yakitori from their Issey Miyake. This is not all window dressing, but rice wine accounts for only 10 per cent of wine sales. As the other 90 per cent suggests, Japanese food lends itself well to wine made from grapes too. There are potential pitfalls in ingredients like wasabe, chilli and pickles, but seasonings tend to be subtle, avoiding the dangers, for wine, of Indian food and the heat and sweetness of Thai.
Twenty years ago, the Japanese drank less than a bottle of wine per head in a year. That figure has increased fourfold. Wagamama lists a French white and red among its four fruity whites, four soft reds and one rosé. At Yo! Sushi, wine is more popular than sake. At Zuma, Alessandro Marchesan is the Italian sommelier charged with the not unenviable task of choosing the wine list to match the subtleties of Colin Clague's inventive cooking. "Japanese customers often ask for muscadet because it's been marketed heavily in Japan but I don't find it that interesting with sushi and sashimi," Marchesan says, suggesting instead clean-cut, dry Italian whites like vermentino and vespaiolo, or chablis and aromatic riesling with sushi, and a fuller, aromatic New Zealand riesling for a dish such as yellowtail with green chilli relish with a ponzu (bitter orange and soy) sauce. Char-grilled fish, popular at Zuma's sister restaurant, Roka, can take the oakier qualities of a Californian or Australian chardonnay.
For white meats such as chicken with the extra richness of a barley miso marinade, Marchesan advises white burgundy, such as a Camille Giroud montagny, or an off-dry mosel riesling such as Heymann Löwenstein, whose off-dry sweetness brings out the ginger, or pinot noir. Rich meats like miso-marinated lamb cutlets chime with full-bodied vacqueyras and spicy Aussie shiraz like Shaw and Smith or Charlie Melton's Nine Popes. Chianti classico, Spain's ribera del duero and priorat, full-bodied vacqueyras and spicy Aussie shiraz come into their own with red meats, including, of course, expensive, melt-in-the-mouth wagyu beef.
At Umu, cooking is of a traditional, Kyoto style. It too has a European sommelier, the Frenchman Matthieu Garros. He makes the distinction between delicate white fish, which he says calls for aromatic dry whites like dry alsace and Clare Valley riesling, and the oilier, fatter properties of belly of tuna and salmon, which suit spicy Austrian grüner veltliner or more opulent meursault.
The prospect of so many food and wine partnerships may seem intimidating, but these general pointers from Marchesan or Garros certainly help. Matching Japanese food to Western wines can be a playground for the adventurous, whether it's at home with a supermarket sushi set or in a top-class Japanese restaurant.Reuse content