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Recently I spent some time in Orange County, visiting my cellar and an old friend I had not seen for half a decade, and was set on cultivating newfound food appreciation for sushi. Fresh off of my burger high, I was resolved not to eat another one too soon after—respecting Adam Fleischman’s creation. Instead, I would be jonesing for some foreign fare, flirting with the possibility of nigiri, the authentic sushi experience (let’s not have that debate here). I was also eager to test some theories on harmoniously pairing wine and sushi, since I was late to the game. This is the story of wine number 326.

I can remember my first sushi experience, painfully, when I was younger (about ten years old) and not being able to stomach the cylindrically rice-laden edibles that were laid before me. I could not get past the idea of what I was eating, no matter in retrospect, how mild. My palate has developed immensely in the last fifteen years since my first encounter and I am much more receptive to food in general. A parallel could be drawn to the first time I heard a single from TV on the Radio back in 2003, I was not in the right place to properly receive the band, and instead, I preferred Doug Martsch and J Mascis… TV on the Radio vanished from my radar. It would be another five years before Dear Science made me a believer.

I met my friend in Irvine at the cellar where he helped me usher in the four cases of premium California Pinot Noir among other vinifera. We caught up as I repacked the cellar, shuffling newer vintages to the back while older vintages inched closer to being opened. I also pilfered the cellar, taking two separate bottles of indie Champagne out, one for the sushi dinner and the other for another blog. I do not make it down to Orange County too often so it was imperative I take advantage of my being there by grabbing any bottle I was remotely interested in drinking.

We were done in the cellar and enjoyed some of the amenities of being a member of the Irvine Wine Cellar Club, playing pool, sampling some wines, noshing on a baguette and charcuterie and watching a bit of the final four—though basketball ain’t my sport, especially when UCLA had been ousted in an earlier bracket of the tournament. We were complacent on killing time and reminiscing until my stomach flashed the bat symbol.

It was time to eat, no longer could the salami and other cured meats suppress my appetite. I began to comb my phone (Yelp app) for highly recommended places to eat Japanese in the nearby Irvine area. There was a paucity of acclaimed sushi bars. I made a few calls to check the wine lists, being polite, though I was met with resistance by a few of the restaurants when asking about the wine. I immediately pined for LA where an innocuous question would be happily answered.

The phone calls were awkward at best, I kept hearing the phrase “standard wines” that these restaurants provided, and I could feel the irritation on the phone about having to run through a wine list. What the F*&k does “standard” mean? How can that be a sufficient answer to a customer? After a little probing, I discovered that standard meant stripped down to the basic functioning wine list, and in terms of Champagne, it meant no creativity. Our restaurant (notice how there is no name written), winner by default, served Möet & Chandon White Star, Veuve Clicquot yellow label and Dom Perignon all the brainless but high margin wines to round out a sub-par wine list. I felt that my quest for premium fish would be held off until I was back in LA.

I was happy to bring a bottle of Ployez-Jaquesmart Extra Brut to the table for two reasons; I knew that it would provide an exciting flavor profile against the comparable Veuve Clicquot and that it would be a good introduction to life outside major house Champagne. The idea behind the pairing was that the high acidity found in Champagne would be able to cleanse the palate, leaving the taste buds perked and ready for another roll. Acidity is one of the main attributes that can help make a pairing successful. Sushi rolls are packed with chunks of fatty tuna, or salmon, which add a lot of richness in flavors that need to be reeled in. The acidity cuts the fat and melds the flavors, the ideal situation in any pairing scenario. Sushi rolls some times come tempura-ized and as I can attest—Champagne’s natural affinity for fried foods makes it the perfect match on paper.

After our four rolls were ordered we waited and discussed more life. Ducks hockey dominated the conversation; we were up in the air if the Ducks could dismantle the Sharks—a Pacific Division nemesis—as the hockey season dwindled down to a crucial stage for Anaheim making the playoffs.

The food arrived and the presentation was busy but pleasant. The rolls were inviting, packed with fish and fresh vegetables, waiting to be plucked by our chopsticks. The first few bites were enjoyable and exactly what I had wanted, until my hand navigated to the tempura roll—that was rough. Erring on the fried side, it was the least agreeable roll on the table and it definitely called for some Champagne to erase the heavy coating of oil that came with it. The Ployez-Jaquesmart was up to the task of assuaging the grease but not as bright as I would have liked. The vibrancy was downplayed, offering toastier and autolysis notes of baked brioche and toasted nuts. I was hoping to see more citrus and Pippin apple on the palate to counteract the fresh squeezed lemon juice atop the Cohiba rolls—which were the darlings of the four rolls. The Champagne did not mesh perfectly but it was still able to restart the palate and play the setup man to the sushi.

After dinner, my Japanese craving was slaked, I had successfully spent the day in Orange County, visited my cellar and was looking forward to capping the night with the Ducks game; it had been an active day and I was happy with the results of the Champagne and food pairing, even though this particular bottle was not the best match, the components behaved expectedly. In the future I hope to incorporate more sushi bars (with the help of my readers’ suggestions) from Los Angeles with wine, maybe even pop a few bottles of Riesling—another high acid wine—and eventually graduate to nigiri. I said goodbye to my old friend and invited him up to LA to enjoy another round of catch up and sushi, hopefully years wont pass before that transpires. I will keep you posted.

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