On July 13 The Gohan Society and Kampai.US hosted a shochu pairing at Bara restaurant in New York City to introduce the various ways to enjoy the distilled spirit of Japan with foods influenced by Japanese ingredients. The event featured five courses from Bara Executive Chef Ian Alvarez and five shochu pairings selected by shochu specialist Stephen Lyman, who runs Kampai.US, a comprehensive English-language guide to shochu.
The event was the first in a series of four seasonal tastings presented by Kampai.US and The Gohan Society to introduce one of Japan’s favorite beverages to New Yorkers who are more familiar with sake. Shochu is popular in Japan with young Japanese people because the distilled beverage contains less sugar and has fewer calories than other types of alcohol. In recent years there’s been a mini-boom for shochu here in New York City, thanks in part to people like Lyman and Japanese distributors, such as Mutual Trading Company, who are pushing to widen the beverage’s market.
Unlike sake, which is brewed, shochu is distilled and is most often compared to vodka. It has a 500-year history in Japan, originating in Kyushu in the Western part of the country where sweet potatoes are grown. Sweet potato (imo) is but one flavor of shochu; barley (mugi), rice (kome), black sugar (kokuto), and buckwheat (soba) are other popular kinds.
As someone who actively dislikes shochu, I’m probably the last person who would attend a shochu pairing, but since JapanCulture•NYC is about “all things Japanese in New York City,” I figured I’d give it a whirl. (Full disclosure: I’m also employed by The Gohan Society as a writer, so . . .)
Chef Alvarez, formerly of Momofuku, fuses Japanese and French flavors at Bara, which opened at the end of last year. In planning the menu for this event, he included a few dishes he serves regularly, but he also prepared a few first-time items as well. Lyman described the shochu as it was served with each course and gave a tutorial on how to enjoy his choices, which are all available in New York, long after the event is over.
For this event Bara put the tables together for an izakaya-style evening of sharing tasting plates and sipping shochu.
Montauk Pearl Oysters (with water kimchi mignonette)
Tori Kai and soda – Ginjo Kome from Tori Kai Shuzo, Kumamoto
Lyman hit the first pitch out of the park with Tori Kai and soda. If you drink sake you’re probably familiar with the term “Ginjo,” which means that at least 40% of the rice was polished away during the sake brewing process and denotes a premium status. Mixing Tori Kai with soda drastically cut down on the strong smell and taste of shochu, the primary reasons I haven’t fully welcomed this beverage into my heart. Paired with the oysters – with that kick from the kimchi – it was quite refreshing to enjoy in the summer humidity.
Heirloom Tomato and Stone Fruit (with wakame, ponzu gelee, furikake)
Ginrei Shiro Cocktail (with spearmint, shiso, coconut water, and lime) – Kome from Takahashi Shuzo, Kumamoto
Wow – the cocktail! This event is now batting 1.000, and it’s almost making me forget that I’m drinking shochu. Several of the men seated around me found Bara General Manager Kyle Storm’s concoction a little too sweet for their palates, but it was a hit with the ladies. I found that the sweetness of the cocktail provided the perfect balance to the salty flavors found in the salad.
Lamb Tartare (with pistou, cured egg yolk, Banyuls wine, sunflower greens, semolina cracker)
Yaeyama Seifuku (with ice and water) – Awamori from Seifuku Shuzo, Okinawa
The lamb tartare, which is not on Bara’s regular menu, was otherworldly. It was packed with so much flavor that the event could’ve ended there, and I would’ve been satisfied. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the Awamori. I realize that I’m half Okinawan and I should be a champion of this regional specialty, but I just can’t drink it. Not in a mug with a couple of ice cubes and cold water, at least. I’m grateful that my uncle in Okinawa doesn’t have a reliable Internet connection. And that he can’t read English.
Black Bass (with ginger tare glaze and togarashi cucumbers)
Flat Iron Steak (with bok choy and Worcestershire)
Grilled Summer Vegetables (with chermoula)
Ikkomon (with ice and water) – Imo Honkaku from Komaki Shuzo, Kagoshima
This course is the reason people should visit Bara. The fish was tender and juicy, the steak flavorful, and the chermoula, which normally seasons fish and meat, kicked the veggies up a notch. Of all the kinds of shochu, my least favorite is imo (sweet potato), but I think this one tied all of the flavors of course together fairly nicely. I would’ve liked Ikkomon better had it been oyuwari (with hot water), but Lyman reminded me this was a SUMMER tasting menu. People drink hot coffee and hot tea in July, but that’s fine; I’ll have my oyuwari at the WINTER event.
White miso panna cotta (with peach jam)
Mugon (with ice and water) – Kome Honkaku (aged ten years) from Sengetsu Shuzo, Kumamoto
What a way to finish this tremendous meal! I fell in love with this salty-sweet dessert with the first spoonful. Mugon is a special shochu, but it’s way too strong for me.
Nothing on the tasting menu screamed “Japanese!” and that’s a good thing. It shows that a Japanese beverage does not need to be consumed with Japanese food. And the Gohan+Shochu Tasting Night showed that I’m opening my mind and palate to the idea of (almost) enjoying shochu; it just needs to be in cocktail form for now.
For more photos of the event, please take a look at JC•NYC’s Flickr album.