In Collingswood, NJ, there's a small, dark Japanese restaurant with decor that hasn't been updated in decades and ceilings so low that taller patrons often have to duck as they walk to their table. You can bring you own wine, and if you do, you'll be handed a winged corkscrew and left to open it on your own.
And yet, it's always busy and even made the 2017 James Beard Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalist list. The restaurant is Sagami, and people come from miles and miles around, braving the crazy traffic on rte 130 and navigating Jersey jug handles if they happen to be on the opposite side of the road to enjoy authentic Japense cuisine, including sushi.
According to a 2015 glowing review of the restaurant in the Courier Post (the newspaper I write my wine column for), Sagami has been in this location since 1974, run by Chizuko Fukuyoshi and her chef/husband Shigeru Fukuyoshi. I've lived just a few miles from the restaurant for well over 40 years, but until last night, I had never eaten there.
Sushi usually leaves me unsatisfied. My meal at Sagami left me incredibly satisfied. I was there with a group of friends - Dana, Stephanie and Yvonne - all who have been there many times and helped me through the menu.
Earlier that day, I went to Moore Brothers Wine Company in Pennsauken - just down the road from Sagami - to pick up a wine order and choose a bottle to pair with Sagami's Japanese cuisine. I thought maybe I'd grab a bottle of gruner veltliner, but when I told one of Moore Brothers' associates where I was going for dinner, she recommended Pressoni Soave Classico from Catina del Castillo, the wine she chooses when she goes to Sagami. Sold.
Here's the description of the wine from Moore Brothers website:
Very ripe Garganega grapes from the slopes of Monte Pressoni (a confined wine-producing area immediately north of the village of Soave), give very fine, exuberant wines. This is a wine of rich, creamy flavors well balanced by mineral acidity. It is an ideal accompaniment for sashimi, pasta and delicate white meats.
Before we talk pairing, let's talk about Soave. It's not a grape. It's a wine region in the western part of Italy's Veneto. The Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) region produces white wines made from a minimum of 70 percent garganeca that may also include chardonnay, pinot beach and trebbiano. It's extremely popular in Italy, and it was wildly popular here in the United States in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s (in fact, I do believe we had a Soave on the menu when I worked at Bennigan's in college, but the most I knew about it then was it was white).
Soave seemed to suffer from the same problem Chianti suffered from during that time period. Its popularity led to mass marketing, over production and poor quality. Eventually wines from Soave fell out of favor with Americans, so much so that it's barely known by the general public today.
There are some producers who are creating quality Soave that is starting to make its way back to the states. Many of those quality bottles are coming from the Soave Classico region. When am Italian wine is labeled as Classico, it means something specific. A Classico area within a DOC is usually the oldest wine producing area in the DOC and will have the best wines from the region as a whole.
Now that we understand a little about what the wine is and where it comes from, it's time to talk pairing.
Soave and sushi
I was not steered wrong. This was a good pairing. The minerality and acidity in the wine worked with most of the foods we ordered. It was very complementary with the nasa shigiyaki - pan fried eggplant topped with chicken miso paste that was savory and slightly sweet. It held up to the spiciness of the soy and wasabi sauce that I dipped my California rolls and yellowtail rolls in, and it was just right with the chirashi - a bowl full of fresh, raw fish, tamago (Japanese-style sweet omelet), and seasoned rice.
I wasn't wild about the Soave with the satisfyingly rich enoki mushroom soup. The soup overpowered the wine, but it would be difficult to find one wine that can complement any restaurant's entire menu.
My friends' guidance, a good wine pairing, and the fresh, authentic, skillfully prepared food was the trifecta I needed to feel satisfied after a Japense meal. I'm now looking forward to my next visit to Sagami.
(For the record, I also purchased a small bottle of nigori sake, an unfiltered saki, for the meal also. I did not like it on its own or paired with the food, so I'm not going to write anything more about it. Would definitely like to try a different sake, possibly a sparkling sake, next time.)