It is a common misconception outside Japan that sake and sushi form a perfect combination. On the contrary, Natsuki Kikyua, acclaimed Sake Samurai and Sake Director at Bisushima, explains. Despite both being made from the same core ingredient of rice, it is difficult to find sake that matches the wide range of flavours at work across a set of sushi dishes. This was the challenge Natsuki was presented with as she teamed up with chef Taku Watanabe for his one-night residency at the omakase, literally meaning ‘respectfully leaving another to decide what is best’ (and used in regards to a Japanese restaurant in which the menu consists of dishes selected by the chef), restaurant Bisushima in London.
Bisushima’s name stems from the Egyptian god Bisu, representing hedonism, and the Japanese word shima, meaning island, which symbolises Bisushima’s intention to cater to both exuberant and tranquil tastes. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s omakase format gives culinary jurisdiction to the chef and invites an element of surprise for visitors who rely exclusively on the tastes of said chef, and in this case, Natsuki too. Natsuki and Taku have known each other from his own restaurant JIN – which he opened in Paris in 2013 alongside Ninna Nikhou – meaning that his and Natsuki’s partnership at Bisushima was a very natural progression. Taku had been consulting with Bisushima since its opening and was the one who encouraged Natsuki to curate their sake offering. In essence, the familiar setting of Bisushima brought these two brilliant minds of Japanese food and drink together to experiment. In this exclusive one night pop-up, Natsuki and Taku illuminated how challenging it can be to successfully pair sushi and sake, yet how rewarding it is when done correctly.
The event took place in Bisushima’s stunning rooftop terrace, which boasts a panoramic vista of its bustling Covent Garden and Leicester Square surrounds. With the clean décor and our positioning at the counter-style seating, onlookers were at liberty to watch Taku and his sous-chefs at work. Natsuki was on hand to greet guests and expertly describe the drinks and their origins. Her detailed explanations were especially compelling given that she is descended from a sake brewing family in Akita, who have been making sake since 1656.
Natsuki has been living in the UK for a number of years and made London her home in order to bring sake to the European market. This was a choice determined by the 70-year long decline that has affected the Japanese market, coupled with the opportunity to expand its consumption in Europe – a continent already well known for its long standing relationship with wine. In her professional projects, handcrafted description of the evening’s expressions, and organisation of the event itself, Natsuki’s keen desire to uphold the tradition of sake brewing in Japan is clear. Taku’s story echoed Natsuki’s in many ways. He has seen an incredible rise in the demand for sushi in Europe, and specifically the rise of nigiri (a hand-pressed ball of rice topped with wasabi and a topping that usually consists of raw fish) over sushi rolls. But, when he first arrived in Paris, he felt there was no authentic sushi or sake – making it the perfect location to bring JIN to life.
Usually, Taku would create dishes by focusing initially on the food, and subsequently pairing it with wine or sake. However, for this event, Natsuki first suggested the sake which Taku complemented with his choice of nigiri sushi toppings and ingredients. Natsuki tells me that Honjozo sake is the safest choice when there is one plate of sushi, but to suit Taku’s special omakase menu, she curated several carafes of sake beginning with the softer ginjo and moving gradually to the intensity afforded by junmai.
The sake chosen consisted of four servings of Shuhari ID 1314-1, Hiroki Junmai Daiginjo, Yamagata Masamune 1898, and Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai. Most importantly for Natsuki in selecting these bottles was that they are all produced by pioneering kuramototoji, which can be translated as both ‘brewery owner’ and ‘master brewer’. A growing number of craft sake makers now engage in this dual occupation of managing the business behind, and the liquid inside, each of their bottles. Yet, Natsuki tells me that all the kuramototoji chosen were united by their passion and dedication for the ingredients instrumental to their sake, from the rice they use, to the land where it is grown.
Each sake selected also had a specific flavour that was synonymous with their particular locales. Natsuki explains that the sake were to be tasted in a progressive manner, moving through each expression alongside the various servings of the nigiri provided. The Shuhari acted as a palette cleanser, preparing the taste buds for Taku’s cod roe and caviar appetiser. Brewed by the kuramototoji, Hidehiko Matsumoto, the Shuhari ID 1314-1 was designed to capture Matsumoto’s favourite rice fields in a bottle, each bottle so named to represent the particular Yamadanishiki (a type of rice used in sake production) of Hyogo Prefecture. The flavour of this light sake was described by Natsuki as both delicate and yet, having a concentrated richness provided by green pear and vanilla notes. Following the Shuhari, came the Fukushima-originating Hiroki Junmai Daiginjo, with a flavour profile of citrus, lychee, and nashi (Japanese pear), coming together to pose both a refreshing and persistent finish. Moving onto the Yamagata Masamune 1898 Junmai, made following the same recipe used by the Akaiwa brewery since 1898, provided a mellow combination of cream cheese, banana bread, and caramel, given an edge afforded by their local hard water. To finish, the Ishikawa-originating Kikuhime Yamahai Junmai represented a rich and bold umami flavour, laced with caramelised hazelnuts, fresh mushroom, and burnt butter.
Meanwhile, the wide range of nigiri accompanying these expressions varied from sea bream, squid, sea bass, and horse mackerel, to tuna, trout, mackerel, and finally scallops - served in a perfectly prepared order to flow alongside the flavour profiles of the tipples on offer. Like the sake, Taku took pride in the small elements that made up his dishes. Prior to the event, the fatty tuna was aged for a week to develop its flavour; specific condiments were carefully curated in order to express the particular narrative he intended to tell through his sushi; the sushi vinegar was sourced in Kyoto and the Nikili soy sauce - which combines soy sauce, tamari soy sauce, and sake - was, according to Taku, the perfect complement to the fish and rice on the evening’s menu.
When asked to recommend their favourite spots for drinking, dining, and purchasing, Natsuki and Taku provided a range of approved options internationally and within Japan. In London, Natsuki’s top three places to buy sake include Sakaya at Pantechnicon, H.I.S Japan Premium, and Natural Natural Sake Sakana. While Taku, explaining that he has not been exploring restaurants as frequently due to the pandemic, had some in-country recommendations to be added to the list for those outside of Japan to explore when international travel reopens. These include the ryotei (traditional Japanese) restaurants Matsukawa and Ishikawa, as well as the sushi restaurants Kimura, Sugita, Sushi Arai, and (his particular favourite), Gin Sushi in Karatsu.
Maddie Rose Baker