The dinner starts with a cocktail that on paper seems like it could be way too many things - mezcal and dashi-tomato water with both oyster and sea urchin. But instead it’s brisk, refreshing, delicate and appetizing all at the same time. The combination of dashi - the Japanese broth made with seaweed and dried tuna shavings - adds just the right amount of tang to balance the tomato and mezcal mix. It’s the perfect start to dinner at the about-to-open fusiony-Japanese Sushi Seki in the Theater District of Manhattan, the owner’s third in New York but the first with Shingo Gokan at the drinks helm, and judging by the first drink, we’re in for a terrific ride.
In fact, the dinner is presented as a mix of food and drink, but the first menu we see is a multi-color illustrated ten drink listing, including the above described Umi cocktail, with others including the Sakura (junmai saké, Japanese plum liqueur, peach, champagne vinegar and pickled Sakura cherry brine, the Yuzu (shochu, saké, shiso leaf, yuzu, honey and seasoned sweet salt), and the surprisingly easy to drink Martini variant Komé, made with Japanese rice vodka, daiginjo saké and caviar.
Gokan also makes a drink with matcha, the powdered green tea he used to such great effects a few years ago when he won the annual Bacardi Legacy competition in Puerto Rico. Normally, dinner and cocktail pairings don’t appeal to me - long, drawn out, with drinks too strong or sour or involved to match well with the food, quench one’s thirst or keep one focused and entertained at the same time. In this case, though, the food - three sushi courses as well as duck with sorrel, sliced veal tongue, scallops, and beets with soft tofu served in small sharable plates - matched universally well with the drinks, though in some cases the dishes honestly took a back seat to Gokan’s deft hand at taking stand out ingredients and making them work together to become something new.
It’s more than simply matching ingredients to the cuisine - yuzu, the sharp Asian citrus, has appeared in many drinks in both Asian and Western bars and restaurants for some time, as have shiso leaves, but rarely with the subtlety and finesse Gokan employs. Both can dominate drinks; like freshly basil, shiso’s aromas are bracing, and can dominate a drink, but Gokan got it right, with hand carved ice keeping the leaf pinned to the glass and seasoned salt making a tangy pairing inside the drink.
About that ice: usually, operations that focus on ice make too much of it, compared to what customers care about. In this case, no one noticed the ice much, as the drinks, whether served up, in a saké box or on the hand-carved rock, they were creative and appealing without being punishing or overwhelming. The prospect of ten drinks with dinner can make even the most experienced imbiber wonder in advance, but for once, someone got it right.
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