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Finding one wine to drink throughout a meal is no easy task. So how would Krug Champagne fare against 10 courses at Sake No Hana? Chris Losh finds out
Challenging a wine to go right the way through a meal, from aperitif to dessert is a bit like asking a member of Mensa to play in an orchestra during the week and turn out for a premiership football team on Saturdays. Still, such was the challenge set for Krug Champagne by the team at Sake No Hana, Alan Yau’s Japanese venture in St James’s.
The restaurant, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kum, is coolly and subtly understated, which suits this aristocratic Champagne down to the ground. But still, Champagne right the way through a 10-course meal taking in everything from tempura green peppers to wagyu beef? Surely we’d be better off with saké?
Not according to Christine Parkinson, wine buyer for Sake No Hana. ‘Krug is more of a chameleon than most sakés we have tried,’ she said. ‘If you are going to have just one drink right through, Krug handles it better.’ Olivier Krug, directeur de la maison for Krug, was pretty sanguine about the challenge as well. ‘Even if some dishes don’t work we will learn from them. It’s about opening up to other cultures,’ he said.
At Sake No Hana, a meal is intended to be a journey, beginning in the mountains (with salad and vegetables), moving on through the sea (fish) to the fields (meat dishes) and finishing up with filling rice courses.
The first salad was nasu iridashi, a sweet, smoky aubergine dish with curly bonito shavings and an intensely savoury sesame sauce. This made for a surprisingly flavoursome mouthful, but Krug was sufficiently big-bodied to cope with the assault, adding a crisp white-fruited zip to the finish. A second salad, horenso goma ae, was a lighter spinach dish with sesame seeds. Rather surprisingly, this was an excellent match. ‘You’d never think of having Krug with a green vegetable,’ mused Olivier. ‘But actually it works well; it opens up the palate.’
Roberto della Pietra of Roussillon restaurant saw parallels between such devastatingly simple food and a similar dish from his native Italy of spinach tossed with garlic and parmesan. ‘The great Japanese chefs are so talented because they can find truth in simplicity,’ said Olivier approvingly.
From the mountains, we moved down to the sea with a trio of sashimi: turbot, tuna and octopus – which were all very different in character. The turbot was light and fresh, benefiting from judicious use of soy sauce; the tuna was glistening purple, meaty and pure, while the octopus was something of a revelation: sweet, smoky and full-flavoured.
‘This course becomes about texture,’ said Parkinson. ‘You can feel the density of the Krug – it’s a very physical thing.’ Certainly, the different dishes brought out different elements in the wine – citrusy notes for the lighter turbot; smokier, richer elements for the octopus. But doesn’t sashimi need something light and neutral to accompany it? ‘People often think that,’ said Parkinson, ‘but in fact the opposite is true. The flavours are pure and deceptively simple, but they’re also quite intense. A lot of wines would fail with the octopus.’
Our time at the sea continued with Chilean sea bass wrapped in a houba leaf and served with a ginkgo nut and shimeji mushrooms. It’s something of a signature dish at Sake No Hana – and it’s easy to see why. The fish was rich and sweet, with a miso sauce underneath adding a savoury note. The Krug was masterly here: its richer sous-bois and yeasty notes chiming with the savoury characters, while its acidity added a palate-cleansing lemony freshness to the finish.
From here it was on to the fields with mushi shabu beef: thin slices of wagyu beef steamed at the table on a bed of greens, which are then wrapped to form a kind of meaty spring roll. Champagne and beef seem an impossible match, but this worked for two reasons: first, the meat was light, almost delicate in flavour, and second, the two sauces – citrusy ponzu and rich sesame dip – brought out different elements of the wine.
Before moving on to the second, richer part of the meal we tried the ebi fry (prawns fried in breadcrumbs) – a kind of sharpener to reawaken the palate that went as well with the fizz as you would expect. Then it was on to three vegetable tempura: sweet potato, pumpkin and Japanese green pepper.
The first two were an unequivocal success, with the bubbles and acidity adding freshness to the sweet veg. The green pepper, though, was more controversial, with some feeling that the Champagne balanced the vegetal character and others finding it too challenging.
A trio of sushi, however, brought more universal approval. No surprise that the salmon was a hit or even that the intense salmon roe should work, though a less full-bodied Champagne than Krug would struggle. But that it also worked with the intense sweet/salt flavours of the sea urchin was astonishing. ‘The sushi brings out the fruitiness in the wine,’ said della Pietra admiringly.
Our penultimate dish was a traditional rustic Japanese chicken casserole, poulet noir ni. A world away from the jewelled precision of sushi, this was proper comfort food, with the chicken marinated in mirin and miso (sweet and savoury) and including soya beans, sugar snaps, carrots and peppers. A heavy and warming dish, the Champagne added freshness to flavours, acting, as della Pietra poetically put it, ‘like a small boy interrupting a serious conversation’.
The final dish of unagi no hitsumabushi (eel with rice and egg) resembled kedgeree, with big sweet, earthy eel flavours thrown into the mix. This was a brilliant match, with both the dish and the wine enhanced by the experience. ‘You can find the smoky, sweet and savoury flavours in the wine,’ said Parkinson. ‘But it also adds floral, citrus and herb characters. It’s a match of contrasts.’
Amazingly, for all our early scepticism, there were no dishes that really didn’t work with the wine – possibly because Japanese food relies on purity of flavours rather than heavy spices, and possibly because Krug is such a multi-faceted Champagne that different elements of it tend to spark with different dishes. A chameleon indeed…
Try this special menu that includes a glass of Krug at Sake No Hana during May
£90 per person for full menu or £65 per person for first four dishes (lunch only). Call 020 7925 8988 for reservations.
Olivier Krug, directeur de la maison for Krug Champagne
Chris Losh, editor of drinks industry bible, Imbibe
Christine Parkinson, wine buyer for Sake No Hana
Roberto della Pietra, head sommelier at Roussillon restaurant
23 St James’s Street, SW1, 020 7925 8988