Hiro Sushi: A Fabulous Restaurant Adds a Knife Store and Sake Lounge

Hiro Yoshida has been creating and serving exquisite sushi and other Japanese culinary delights in Toronto for decades. His specialty is “omakase,” a traditional form of service in which the host assumes full responsibility for the guest’s menu. His fish is of the highest quality. When possible he uses local seasonal ingredients. He creates his dishes on the fly, so there’s never any possibility of boredom. The kitchen dishes, prepared by the indomitable Rei, are poetic.

If exceptional food isn’t enough, Hiro gives his guests a warm Japanese cultural embrace. He creates an atmosphere of respect and friendship, and encourages guests to get to know each other. He plays his beloved jazz and swing music to add to the mood. (Nina Simone is his favourite.) His servers, mostly foreign exchange students with temporary work permits, are uniformly intelligent and helpful. All in, you’ve got to love this place.

Hiro recently opened his renovated establishment, formally called Hiro Sushi Restaurant, Catering and Knife Store (171 King Street East,www.hirosushi.ca) The knife store, with a range of impressive Japanese steel knives in all shapes and sizes, doubles as a sake lounge after 6:00 pm. The opening was an excuse for a great party. Best of all, it gave Hiro’s friends to show him the respect and affection he’s earned looking after us well for many years.

Hiro and knives
Hiro is justifiably proud of his new “Kotobuki”  knife store and sake lounge.

Hiro sake bar sign

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Sake: Japan’s National Drink Deserves Better Press

Sake could be the best unknown fermented beverage in the world.  It’s Japan’s favourite drink and has been for a very long time, but its relative obscurity means that prices in Canada are comfortably low.

Sake is not a type of wine, spirit or liqueur; it’s a rice beer without the CO2 bubbles we expect in conventional beer and cider.   In the glass it performs pretty much the way dry white grape wine does.  It can be consumed on its own as an aperitif or partnered with a wide range of foods.   The best examples should be drunk cold.  More modest bottlings taste gentler and more complex when heated to about 30o C.

Sake starts off as rice.  The grain is milled, steamed, blended with yeast and kojo (aspergillum mould) and fermented for 30 to 90 days with added lactic acid to deter infection.   There are many rice varietals available to sake producers, each with its own fermentation behaviour and flavour profile leading to a distinct style.

Water is a crucial ingredient in sake.  The source of the H2O used deeply shapes the final product.  Water variables include whether it originated in snow melt or springs and how much time it spent percolating through what kinds of stone.  Dissolved potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid serve as nutrients for yeast during fermentation.  Hard water is known for producing drier sake.  Soft water typically yields a sweeter brew.

The kojo (aspergillum) added to the rice breaks the grain’s starch into its component sugars.  The action of the amylases it generates does the job.  The sugars are then fermented into ethanol by wild and cultivated yeasts selected for particular aromas and flavours.

The quality level of a given sake is determined by the degree to which its rice has been milled.  This polishing removes the bran and some of the endosperm of the rice grain, leaving behind the desirable shimpoku (starch heart).  Futsu or table sake has no milling constraints.  It’s often made from table rice and bulked up with distilled spirit.  This category benefits from heating.  Honjozo sake is made of rice polished down to 70% or less of its original size with a small amount of added spirit.  It tends to be fragrant and lightish.  Junmai or “pure rice” sake, full-bodied with pronounced acidity, contains no added alcohol.  The grains are usually milled to 70%.  Gingo sake uses rice milled down to 60% and is fermented at cool temperatures.  It’s elegant, refined aromatic stuff.  Daiginjo is sake’s grand cru category.  Made from rice milled down to less than half of its original size, it’s light and intensely fruity and fragrant.

The character of an individual sake is strongly influenced by where it’s made.  Each prefecture boasts its own water and a particular philosophy and style favoured by its producers.

At a wonderful seminar in Toronto sponsored by the IWEG Drinks Academy (iweg.org), sake experts Michael Tremblay and Robin Morgan presented a clutch of typical sakes to an enthusiastic crowd.  Here are my notes on nine of them.  At prices starting out under $15 and topping out at $35 for a 750 ml. bottle, these sakes belong in your basket.

Izumi “Nama Nama” Junmai Nama (88+) is unpasteurized.  It’s fresh, subtly sweet, mildly dusty and pungent with tropical fruit notes.

Nagai Shuzo “Mizuaoki” Honjozo, Gunma Prefecture (89+) is powerful and deep with fresh Asian pear, apple and floral notes and a mild hot bite from the alcohol.

Kodama Shuzo “Taihei Zan” Junmai Kimoto Akita Prefecture (89) is pungently mineral and slightly salty with a buttery creamy elegance and a fruity sweetness.

“Izumi” Nigori Junmai, a ringer from the Ontario Spring Water Company in—wait for it—Toronto Canada (89) is an example of unfiltered sake.  It’s a cloudy creamy yellow-tinged brew with sweet spice aromas.  It’s rustic with a slightly gritty mouthfeel and pleasantly bitter and sweet flavours.

Kiku-Masamune Junmai Taru, Kobe City, Hyogo Prefecture (90) is a pale straw colour with a very elegant complex nose of fruit and sweet spice with notes of caramel, minerals and white pepper.  There’s power and punch but with no rough edges.

Yoshi no Gawa “Goku Jo” Ginjo, Niigata Prefecture (90+) is suave and elegant with fruit and orange petal and star anise aromas.  It’s fresh, complex and creamy with a long rich persistence.

Hokkai-Otoyama “Man’s Mountain” Tokubetsu Junmai Kimoto (90+) features a distinct pungent minerality over rich melon and slightly tropical fruit.  Suave and elegant, it’s also intensely flavourful and fresh.

Fukumitsuya “Kuro Obi Dodo” Junmai Yamahai Ishikawa Prefecture (90+) offers gently pungent earthy cereal and mushroom aromas.  In the mouth it’s less fruity and more grunty than other Junmai samples but with lots of style and fine length.

Oomuraya Shuzo “Watatake” Junmai Daiginjo Shizuoka Prefecture (91) has bright tropical fruit and cereal notes including cantaloupe and freshly-snapped celery stalk.  It’s intense and elegant, creamy, fresh and supple.  It is absolutely smooth but intense with a very long finish.

Sake and Sake Experts 3

Sake experts Robin Morgan and Michael Tremblay strike a meditative pose behind a beautiful batch of empty sake bottles after presenting a wonderful IWEG seminar to an enthusiastic crowd.

[IWEG is offering the WSET Award in Sake course in Toronto.  The eight session course runs from April 8 to June 3 in Toronto.  For more information log onto www.iweg.org]

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Barolo Marchesi di Barolo

Marchesi di  Barolo is a reliable producer with high quality bottlings at every leven from generic Barolo to single-vineyard “cru” entries.

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A Glass of Tar and Roses Evolves into Something More

Barolo is one of the best red wines in the world.  Its home is northwestern Italy’s Piedmont region.  The distinct character of this great red wine is shaped by the Nebbiolo grapes from which it is made, the soil and microclimate of the particular vineyards in which the grapes grow, and the winemaking know-how of the people who make and age the wines.  Only Barolo is Barolo.

Some tasters compare Barolo to red Burgundy for its exclusivity, elegance, delicacy and complexity.  It offers fresh and dried cherry-red berry fruit, dust, and earthy leather and floral aromas and flavours.  Old-style thin, dry angular Barolos are few and far between nowadays as younger winemakers have moved to riper fruit and gentler techniques.  In the mouth the complex character is given structure by fresh to crisp acidity and plenty of fine ripe grippy tannins.  The long finish is pleasant and is a clue that Barolos can age well.  The best examples will improve for decades.

Because they’re produced in small volume and enjoy superstar status in the fine wine world, Barolos tend to be on the expensive side.  Prices start around $30 and top out in the low three figures.  Economic reality precludes having Barolo as my house red, but I can manage a couple of bottles a month.  At that dosage they still brighten my mood.  I try to pick up a handful of doozies every year to age in my cellar.  If you don’t feel ready to take the plunge at those prices, Nebbiolo-based reds from vineyards elsewhere in the Langhe region offer comparable high-quality bottlings for $20 to $30.  Travaglini Gattinara ($29.95), Enrico Serafino Barbaresco ($20.75) and Fontanafredda Ebbio Langhe Nebbiolo ($19.95) are good widely-available examples.

Last November at the 19th edition of the Italian Wine Fair in Toronto (co-ordinated by the Italian Trade Commission) I tasted a couple of dozen Barolos which are or will be available in Canada.  There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch.  Here are a few of my favourites.

Manfredi Barolo DOCG Patrizi 2009 (a bargain at $29.95, score 91) has pungent earthy notes with fresh and dried red berry fruit.  The fine grippy tannins and fresh acidity structure the wine through an astringent, well-fruited long finish.

Terre Moriglio Tenuta Carretta Malgrà Barolo DOCG “Cascina Ferrero” 2009 ($39.95, score 91) features intense deep dusty fresh and dried cherry and rose petal aromas and flavours.  It’s fresh, velvety and grippy in the mouth with elegant fruit through an astringent fruited finish with a pleasant bitter note.

Aurelio Settimo Barolo DOCG 2010 ($59.95, score 91+) has a deep rich ripe nose with tar and dust notes, deep cherry fruit, and sweet spice.  Fine firm ripe tannins and fresh acidity frame very rich ripe fruit that linger long on the palate.

Castello di Verduno Barolo DOCG 2006 ($79.95, score 92) is a garnet-tinged ruby wine.  It’s fully mature with a complex harmonious nose of bright dried and fresh cherry fruit, tar, and a sweet spicy floral note.  In the mouth grippy velvet tannins, fresh acidity, earthy spicy flavours and mature fruit dance together through a long satisfying finish.

For more information about Barolo and other Italian wines log on to www.italytrade.com

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Have A Holly Bolly Christmas: Three new releases from Champagne Bollinger

Around the world consumers are buying more sparkling wine than ever and the arrival of the season of celebration means that even more of the stuff will fly off retainers’ shelves.  Consumers can choose from an embarrassment of fizzy riches including Prosecco from Italy, French Crémant wines, soft earthy Cavas from Spain and bubblies from many if not most of the world’s regions of wine production.  Better yet, they’re usually priced under $20.  Stars in a glass are now available to everyone.

Then there’s Champagne.  No other sparkling wine matches it for appearance (tiny bubbles in a vigorous mousse), elegance, complexity, structure or depth.  Simply put, Champagne delivers a unique bundle of intense interesting smells, tastes, and textures in the mouth.  Champagne’s particular character is the product of the region’s cool climate, chalky soils, good grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), and careful management of fermentation and aging.  Consumers must pay the price for all that goodness and the status and reputation of the region.  The wine is usually worth the money.

Bollinger is one of the best known and most respected houses in Champagne.  Founded in 1822, it has survived wars, revolutions, depressions and the Phylloxera epidemic.  Unlike other large producers Bollinger owns 60% of its source vineyards in prime spots and is buying more.  The house style is intense and rich.  All of their different cuveés contain at least 60% Pinot Noir for power and red-fruit nuances and are aged in oak to generate oxidative (nutty, toasty) characteristics.

John Hanna & Sons, agents for Bollinger, presented three of the house’s Champagnes at an exceptional lunch at Jamie Kennedy’s Gilead Café in Toronto.  First up was Bollinger Special Cuvée ($79.95, score 90.)  The English “special” became the wine’s official name because of King Edward VII.  His majesty is said to have kept a stash of this wine at his hunting lodge but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) remember the name Bollinger, simply calling for a bottle of his “special” cuvée.  The base wines for this cuvée include five- to fifteen-year-old reserve wines aged in magnums.  This pale straw-gold sparkler offered rich decadently sweet aromas of autolysed yeast with toasty apple and sour plum notes, a fine vigorous mousse, crisp acidity and a long finish.

Next up was Bollinger Rosé ($99.95, score 90+).  Like most rosé champagnes, this wine is pinked up by adding red Pinot Noir to the base wine.  It’s a medium salmon-copper colour with energetic small bubbles and aromas of autolysed yeast, hints of red berry fruit, and earthy notes.  It’s a lovely fresh mouthful, just-off-dry with red fruit flavours through a long elegant finish.

Finally, we assessed the Bollinger R.D. 2002 ($180.00, score 92).  The R.D. stands for “recemment dégorgée.”  This means that the wine was only recently poured off the dead yeast which carried out the bubble-generating second fermentation.  Long exposure to deceased yeast protects the wine from frank oxidation and imparts that lovely sweet decadent character.  Production began in 1967 when the Madame Bollinger decided to release her long-lees-aged ’52 and ’53 vintages and applied the R.D. designation to them.  A true “vintage” Champagne, R.D. is only released when wine from a particular growing season achieves a high level of quality. (The ’02 is the only the 24th vintage released since the ’67.)  The 2002 R.D. had the typical vigorous mousse.  It flaunted sweet spicy autolytic and toasty notes.  Despite its age it was fresh, crisp, lemony and creamy on the palate with lemon and yeast notes through a long fresh autolytic finish.  A 1990 R.D. brought by a guest at the lunch demonstrated that this cuvée will age for decades, developing mushroom and ginger characters without losing freshness.

I wish you a safe and happy season of celebration ideally involving a bottle of Bolly.  Enjoy everything in moderation except for joy.

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Trinidad Moruga Scoropion Chilli Embellished

My darling wife Carol grew this Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper, the world’s hottest species, from a seed.  Then she drew a lovely background for it.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.Scorpion with claws and legs

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WOW Navarra

On October 13, 14 and 15, Toronto will be treated to a celebration of the wines from the northern Spanish region of Navarra.  Over the three days a series of events and a wine tasting-seminar will show Navarra’s vinous bounty partnered with tapas and other delicious Spanish foods. You’re cordially invited to attend.  To register or for further information you can email Barry Brown at info@spanvino.com or call him at 416 927-9464.

My cherished friend Barry, President of the Spanish Wine Society, spent months planning this mini-festival. Principals and winemaking staff from an impressive range of Navarra’s wine producers will be on hand to answer questions.  Sr. Jordi Vidal, director of the Navarra DO Consejo Regulador (regulatory council) will be on hand for many of the events.  Barry has gone to great lengths to bring some 100 cases of wine to Ontario from Navarra.

On Monday October 13 and Tuesday October 14 from 5:30 pm, Barry Chaim’s EDO Japanese Restaurant, 484 Eglinton Ave. West, will be presenting Navarra wines with Kozara (Japanese tapas) created by EDO chef Ryo Ozawa.  The cost is a bargain-basement $25.  For further info or to make your reservation call 416 322-3033.

Also on Monday October 13, 2014, Tinto Bar de Tapas, 1581 Bayview Ave., will present Iberian specialties and highly creative “Spanish Inspired Tapas” accompanied by six quality wines from Navarra. Winery representatives will be in attendance to pour their products and to answer your questions. For more information or to book your spot call 416 485-158. There are two seatings of only 29 people each, 5:00 pm and 7:45 pm. The cost is $85 plus tax and gratuity.

On Tuesday October 14, 2014 Chris McDonald will present an early evening wine and tapas matching at CAVA Restaurant, 1560 Yonge St., 4:30pm to 6:30 pm. Winery reps will be there to pour and parlay.  The cost is $25.

Also on Tuesday October 14, 2013, proprietor and informal Italian ambassador Roberto Martella and his wife Lucia Ruggiero will open the doors of their restaurant Grano, 2035 Yonge St. to present a tasty Italian meal with wines from Navarra. Winery reps will be there.  Call 416 440 1986 for further information or to make your reservation to attend this Navarra wine dinner. Time: 6:30 Reception, 7:00 Dinner. Cost per person: $85 plus tax and gratuity.

On Wednesday the 15th, in the morning—“The Wines of Navarra: WOW!” will present a seminar to the trade at Patria restaurant—journalists, educators, restaurateurs, members from the LCBO and wine merchants—to further share Navarra with those keen to learn.  Call Barry.  He’s very flexible on what constitutes “the trade.”  It can even include civilian enthusiasts.

What Barry calls “The Big Event” takes place on Wednesday October 15, 2014 at Patria Restaurant, 478 King St. West, just west of Spadina. Forty wines including whites, reds, rosés and a late harvest Moscatel from eight bodegas will be poured by winery representatives.  This will be the biggest ever presentation of Navarra wines in Canada.  The wines will be paired with  more than two dozen different Tapas. The cost is a very fair $42.  Contact Barry Brown for info and to register.

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