Sake Matchmaker, Make Me a Match. What to Pair with Your Izakaya Grub at Robata Jinya. Los Angeles, CA.
A dizzying array of sake choices at Robata Jinya in Los Angeles
Even in this era of the foodie, when most diners are asked what wine to pair with their meal, the response you'll likely still get is a deer in the headlights look or, more accurately, a diner in the wine list bewilderment. Now, imagine going to a Japanese pub, or izakaya, and figuring out which sake to team with that robata grilled chicken skewer or the fish tempura. Your brain may just shut down—it's another level of booze pairing pressure best left to the experts. At least that's what the smart slash lazy food lover does.
Kerry Tamura, a sake sensei
I attended a sake pairing dinner at Robata Jinya in L.A. (There's a new one down south in San Diego too.) Kerry Tamura, sake expert and sake sales rep to the Jinya group, was the fermented rice booze guide for the evening. Although, Tamura paired some of his own sakes with the food, there were also ones that he did not represent which he picked to go with certain items. We began the meal with a toast and a glass of Tedorigawa Yamahai Daiginjo from Ishikawa. It was served chilled and went down fairly smoothly.
This particular sake is a daiginjo which is fermented from at least 50% milled rice grains and has added distilled alcohol.
Super shrimpy shrimp toast
After the toast came another toast, shrimp toast. Frankly, any chilled booze would go well with this shrimpiest of shrimp toast. The chunks of shrimp sandwiched between the toasty slices of bread were simple yet perfect. It was comfort food at its best. The sake was a nice way to wash it down. Easy to drink and nothing pretentious at all about it.
Oysters and friends
Robata Jinya calls its delightful orgy of oceanic pleasures on a half-shell "Oyster Happiness." I've personally heard it called oystergasm. Okay, I called it that, but you won't blame me for it when I tell you that this decadent dish was composed of raw oyster, scallop, uni, caviar, and then dressed with a bright yuzu sauce. Envision everything delicious from the sea in your mouth and swallow. Yeah, that good. Talk about a sexy aphrodisiac. But you're not done, Mr. Tamura will insist that you enhance that oystergasm with a bit of dry sake by the name of Sohomare Tokubetsu Junmai.
Junmai is not blended with distilled alcohol but is pure rice wine from a ground rice grain.
Have some tempura. Just for the halibut!
Following the raw seafood-palooza was a more delicate serving of halibut tempura. The fried batter was light as expected with a very fresh and gentle bite of fish. Naturally, this course had to be followed by a sake named after a fearsome nine-headed dragon called Kuzuryu. The sake Kuzuryu Junmai was clean and dry with no evidence of a nine-headed dragon deity poised to unleash wrath upon my palate. Thank goodness.
A trio of nigiri—halibut, toro tuna, scallop—was coupled with a special, rare sake called Kimura Junmai Daiginjo. Our sake expert explained that this particular rice wine boasts 5 ingredients and is thought of as a sake "unicorn" due to its rarity. Kimora's craftsmanship is on the high side with a seimai-buai (polishing rate) of 40%, making it a refined sip of sake. Thanks to its sweet profile, it goes nicely with the fish, especially the fatty tuna belly.
As fresh as tofu gets
When Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold reviewed Robata Jinya years ago, his favorite dish was the Original Homemade Tofu; and for good reason, it is a sight to behold.
Prepared at the table, the molten soybean milk is poured from a vessel and into a pot where it cools and curdles. There are strict instructions not too stir the thick liquid as it sets.
Cuddly tofu curdling
After about 5 minutes, the tofu starts to form and a quick stirring of the pot is given. Clumps of warm tofu are then ladled into a bowl onto which various Japanese condiments like dried bonito flakes, grated ginger, chopped green onion, or sesame salt can be tossed in to boost the delicate tofu flavor. This bowl of tofu brought back fond memories of the fresh, loose tofu dear old mom used to make at home.
For this round, the restaurant's own label Jinya Original Nigori Sake is the beverage of choice. Made from a 500-year-old process, this sake further brought out the tofu's natural taste.
Skewered & grilled
Yakitori is great. It brings out the caveperson in us all, you know, after the discovery of fire. Smoky and charred chicken thigh and skin plus okra made for a mouthful of goodness, as the next glass of sake was poured to synch with the grilled flavors.
The Tamagawa Tokubetsu Junmai from Kyoto is aged in cedar and nicknamed "heart of oak." There's a gold tint to this rice wine from the wood aging. Its smokiness unquestionably harmonizes well with the robata skewers.
Tongue waggin' Wagyu
Wagyu Lava Stone Grill is a showstopper. Fatty chunks of Wagyu sit atop stones and are set ablaze until a gorgeous char is achieved with glistening melted fat oozing from between tender muscle fibers. Wait until the flames die out before you plunge your chopsticks into the meat.
A sake from Yamagata named Dewazakura "Izumi Judan" Ginjo Tenth Degree is dry, crisp, and juniper berry-esque. Hints of gin make this sake a good match for a hearty bite of fire-finished beef.
Dessert round was a Fondant au Chocolate or a molten chocolate cake. To pair with this treat, Tamura revealed a bottle of Red Maple Nama Genshu imported from Hiroshima. This 2-year-old sake is unpasteurized with fruity, honey notes, making the chocolate cake and the end of this epic meal that much sweeter.
If you think matching sake with Japanese food is perhaps more challenging than finding matching socks, then you need to take a lesson from Rotata Jinya's sake pairing team. Now, where is that other sock?
Robata Jinya L.A.
8050 W. 3rd St.
Los Angeles, CA
Robata Jinya's General Manager