Beer and sake have traditionally been obvious choices at the sushi bar, but as a recent meal at one of my favourite Nairobi sushi watering holes reminded me, for the N-th time (I’ve lost count), Champagne and sushi is one of the best food pairings.
Tokyo Restaurant is rustic and serves Japanese and Korean cuisine on Kolloh Road in Nairobi, with a beautiful garden, and hence a destination restaurant for me. Chef Shin has taught many sushi chefs in the region, moved his Tokyo brand around the city of Nairobi over the years and is a champion of body temperature rice with toppings ranging from that to cool, but never cold. You see, sushi rice is an underrated art that requires superb execution. With sushi, toppings are 30 percent, and rice is 70 percent. If you get the seasoning, temperature or pressure of the rice wrong, you’ve pretty much ruined the melt-in-your-mouth experience. It’s all about balance, and Champagne definitely inspires balance when it comes to the sushi experience.
The vinegar and sometimes sugar in the sushi rice, soya sauce, pickled ginger and even the wasabi were initially used to aid safe consumption of raw fish. Today, it has become a unique taste combination that can be easily complemented by the crisp acidity, fruit and citrus notes, and refreshing nature of Champagne.
When you happen to have a glass of Taittinger Brut, as I did recently, the experience paired with a fatty piece of raw salmon is unbeatable. Whether moulded on nigiri or in a roll or on its own as sashimi, the blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wisps away the natural oiliness of the fish and complements its delicate flavours with soft notes of apples, blackberries and citrus with a subtle minerality and creamy finish, which echoes the salmon’s, framed with fine bubbles.
Many, myself included, still feel that sake is the best partner for sushi because of the rice. But when it comes to sashimi or applications where rice plays a smaller part, yeasty Champagne is definitely a versatile option that makes sense and keeps the palate cleansed so you can experience more nuances of the sushi.
If you’re one of those diners who shy away from raw fish because of the fear of a strong fishy and slimy taste, Champagne will definitely change that perception. However, please remember, a fresh piece of raw fish should always have a clean texture and is beautiful to look at, never slimy or smelly.
Taittinger’s rendition of a Brut is superb, dry, crisp and beautifully balanced. With a perfect piece of salmon nigiri: Absolute culinary paradise.