Japan stands apart as an inventive, innovative nation with an ancient culture that still plays a fundamental role in its ultra-modern, sophisticated society.
And among this fascinating culture’s symbols – ranging from Samurai warriors to bullet trains and Sony Walkmans – Japanese cuisine stands out as a leader of the pack. Until the arrival of the American Black Ships trading mission in the 19th century, Japan was an internationally isolated and insular nation. That may be why its cuisine has remained largely unsullied by outside influences, although as will be seen in this review there are many examples of Japanese chefs using western ingredients to enhance their culinary repertoires.
In all its various forms, Japanese food has entranced the world. Sushi and Sashimi, Tempura and Teppanyaki, Ramen and Udon – they’ve all become popular dishes that also symbolise the traditions and rituals inherent in the culture of the Land of the Rising Sun.To indulge in Japanese cuisine is to become part of that culture. It’s neat, concise, polite and uncompromising, and it all comes with a side order of historic heritage.
Bangkok, with its sizeable Japanese community, contains Thailand’s highest concentration of premium Japanese restaurants and that’s reflected in this selection, which includes wine and sake recommendations by my colleague Bart Duykers of Andaman Wine Club: andaman-wine-club.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Chef Shigeri Hagiwara’s Omakase Sushi – Yamazoto
Okura Prestige Bangkok
Omakase translates as I’ll leave it up to you, meaning you’re trusting the chef to use his personal judgement on the ingredients of this sushi. That may sound a bit of a gamble, but at Yamazoto restaurant in Bangkok’s premier Japanese hotel, it’s odds-on you’ll be a winner. Chef Shigeri Hagiwari – playing his exceptional hand of gastronomic cards – comes up trumps. Expect to be delighted by an enticing display that may include tuna, snapper, mackerel, salmon and other seafood, thinly sliced and delicately presented with vinegared sushi rice for a Full House of spectacular taste sensations.
Sake Companion: Best paired with a medium dry delicate sake, I recommend Dassai 23 Junmai Daiginjo from Yamaguchi prefecture. With a fruity bouquet offering apple, peach and nashi pear, it’s both vivid and sensuous.
Chef Samart Suphan’s Matsusaka Beef, Foie Gras and Unagi Eel Maki – Utage
Plaza Athenee Bangkok
An enduring appeal of Japanese cuisine is its ability to absorb influences from other cultures, and these mouth-watering Makis at Utage restaurant are a fine example of this. Almost exclusively Japanese on the outside, with garlic and beef jelly surrounding a sliver of Matsusaka beef and Japanese kelp roll, their packed fillings include Australian avocado and French foie gras with unagi eel and sticky rice. The finishing touch of fresh wasabi seasoning harmonises all these diverse ingredients, creating a balance of taste and texture that’s sublimely Japanese.
Wine Companion: Given the fattiness of the foie gras and Matsusaka, I suggest pairing with wine of good acidity and minerality, settling for the Verdejo from Marques de Riscal in Rueda. Its dry and fruity character will cope well with all these many flavours.
Chef Kok Fook Seong’s Maine Lobster, Udon Noodles and Chili – Namu
W Retreat Koh Samui
The main attraction at W Retreat’s Namu restaurant is an unexpected combination of Maine lobster and Udon noodles – a classic East meets West scenario where, despite Kipling’s dire prophecy, the twain meet and flourish together in a remarkable dish made for sharing. Udon noodles are traditionally served with soup, but here they’re stir-fried with Jalapeno chilli sauce, topped with flame-torched Maine lobster and covered in a chili bean sauce that’s sour, slightly spicy and luxurious. This blend of tantalising lobster, chili and Udon noodles is an international alliance of culinary wonder.
Wine Companion: Many flavours are combined in this lobster dish, so I recommend a French Chardonnay. The Louis Jadot Chablis is perfect: it’s not oaked, has good freshness and minerality, and adequate acidity to handle some of the rich flavours.
Chef Norio’s Hokkaido Hotate Yaki – Tsu
JW Marriott Bangkok
This signature dish at Tsu restaurant is homage to Hokkaido, the Japanese island renowned as a Shangri-La for seafood lovers. Hokkaido’s scallops feed off the warm Kuroshio and cold Oyashio oceanic currents around the island, that create a unique environment for what’s said to be the world’s finest quality scallops. Here they are in a glorious presentation epitomising Japanese culinary excellence. Chef Norio combines the grilled Hokkaido scallops with garlic butter, mozzarella cheese, soy sauce and sake, creating wonderful flavours that swirl and flow like the seas surrounding Hokkaido.
Wine Companion: I love the delicacy of Hokkaido scallops, having been there and dined on them fresh from the ocean. They’re best paired with the Riesling Yellow Label from Wolf Blass; it’s dry, fresh, fruity and aromatic, and complements the scallops beautifully.
Chef Shiraishi Kikuo’s Unagi Donburi – Taihei
Banyan Tree Phuket
The name of this dish translates as Eel bowl; literally unagi – eel – and donburi – bowl. Like most Japanese cuisine, it’s straightforward in name, but with an outcome devilishly complex and satisfying. For this Unagi Donburi at Taihei restaurant, steamed white rice is topped with eel fillets glazed and caramelised before grilling, similar to teriyaki preparation. It’s garnished with Chef Shiraishi Kikuo’s tara sauce, a flavoured soy concoction that complements the tang of the eel and seeps into the rice below. A finishing touch of boiled egg slices completes the sensory pleasure.
Sake Companion: The Unagi is a perfect fish to be paired with Masumi Karakuchi Gold, thanks to its clean, light taste and mild aroma. This brewery is known for Super Premium Daiginjo, which benefits this standard sake.
Chef Kenji Shindo’s Kama-Meshi – KiSara
Risotto, the ubiquitous rice dish, has wandered far from its Italian homeland and here it’s at another global outpost, the Conrad’s KiSara restaurant, in thoroughly Japanese guise. Prepared at the hands of chef Kenji Shindo, this Kama-Meshi, or Kettle Rice, is distinctly comforting and satisfying. The rice is cooked in a tasteful soup of bonito fish stock, soy sauce and sake, with choices of premium ingredients including Boston lobster, seared scallop, snow fish, queen crab, salmon, eel and giant shrimps, for your own personal seafood Kama-Meshi experience.
Wine Companion: Risotto is a delicate dish that needs a light and fruity wine. The Kaiken Terroir Series Torrontes, little known outside Argentina, is well worth exploring. Expect a burst of fresh fruitiness, almost perfume-like aromas and a nice balance of acidity and minerality.
Chef Somkia Rutanasirisaro’s Teriyaki Foie Gras Nigiri – Inazia
Sheraton Hua Hin
This divine combination of delicacy and intricacy at Inazia is another example of Japan embracing western inspirations; in this instance, the French gourmand’s staple of foie gras, served à la teriyaki. The foie gras is prepared by Chef Somkia Rutanasirisaro in a concoction of pickled ginger, mitsukan vinegar, wasabi, teriyaki sauce, ebiko, ekura and black caviar, and served nigiri style on Japanese rice. The contrast between foie gras texture and lingering teriyaki tang is conspicuously appealing and fabulously extravagant.
Wine Companion: With foie gras we can choose aromatic white or sweet wine, but the teriyaki sauce makes me favour a light red, so I’ll go for the Sileni Cellar Selection Pinot Noir from New Zealand. This pairs easily with the heartiness of the dish and its delicate style complements the umami flavours.
Chef Fatih Tutak’s Early Morning at Tsukiji Market – The Dining Room
The House on Sathorn Bangkok
The House on Sathorn’s well-travelled chef Fatih Tutak is adept at crafting culinary memories from his globetrotting days for The Dining Room restaurant, and this dish is a fond remembrance of his time spent in Tokyo. He often visited Tokyo’s famous early morning Tsukiji fish market, returning with fresh fish from the auctions. This dish – named Early Morning at Tsukiji Market – changes slightly with different fish, but is essentially fresh slices of sashimi glazed with yuzu miso sauce, served with avocado purée and seaweed. It’s a work of art well worth travelling for.
Wine Companion: I’m taking my lovely wife for a meal here and I want to spoil her. Billecart-Salmon rosé please! This stunning champagne pairs very well with raw fish, guaranteeing a romantic afternoon. A true champagne-lover’s favourite.
Chef Suwat’s Super King Tempura Spicy Roll – Kabuki
JW Marriott Phuket
This is definitely fit for a king, although as we’re in Japanese territory perhaps that should be an emperor. Whatever the monarch, Chef Suwat’s Super King Tempura Spicy Roll at Kabuki restaurant more than lives up to its grand title. Composed of deep fried king crab, more crab meat, cucumber, lettuce and spicy mayonnaise, it’s divided into dainty slices of succulent gorgeousness. The crab is fresh and tantalising, the spicy mayonnaise has bite, and the entire creation, although delicately Japanese in character, has a regal presence. In fact, it’s positively imperial.
Sake Companion: This delicious dish is best paired with a dry sake. I suggest the Hatsumako Honjozo, which is fruity and refreshing. It’s best enjoyed chilled, as are most sake and honjozo types, to bring out the fragrance and subtle flavours.
Chef Satoshi Sawada’s Red Dragon Rolls – Shintaro
Anantara Siam Bangkok
In the Japanese tradition of absorbing influences of other cultures, Chef Satoshi Sawada created this signature dish of Red Dragon rolls for his Shintaro restaurant dish after experiencing pan-Asian and Latino culture in Los Angeles. Chopped tuna rolled together with roasted eel, avocado and crispy shallot – spiced-up Japanese style with a host of other ingredients including shrimp, spring onion and delectable in-house sauces – make a memorable pleasure for the palate, ensuring this particular red dragon is a roaring triumph.
Wine Companion: Let’s push the envelope a bit: Melacce Vermentino from Colle Massari in south Tuscany, Italy. Intense nose, with clear fruity traces of green apple and white peach, and floral notes of citrus fruits. Enters the mouth fresh and sweet, with a pleasant acidity, and a good finish. Bring out those rolls!
Chef Rerngchai Pankao’s Sashimi Moriawase Set – Taihei
Banyan Tree Bangkok
A wonderful facet of Japanese cuisine is its concept of set dishes, where choosing what you want is solved with a set combination of choices. It also showcases flavours available in a particular style of dish, and this Sashimi Moriawase Set by Chef Rerngchai Pankao of Taihei restaurant does just that, with an array of prime raw fish slices, prawn and shellfish, all in an inviting presentation. The palette of flavours and textures, from firm and chewy to rich and fatty, is sheer luxurious pleasure.
Sake Companion: Let’s spoil ourselves and select the Born Junmai Daiginjo sake from Fukui. The term Junmai Daiginjo refers to highest quality sake, where rice has been polished more than 50 percent, leaving the very best to create sake. Born is produced from the famous varietal Yamada Nishiki.
Chef Narongsak Thongchair’s Miso Marinated Foie Gras – Hagi
Centara Grand Hua Hin
Foie gras, the Rolls-Royce of European gourmet cuisine, has probably never been so simply yet effectively presented as in this elegant creation by Chef Narongsak Thongchair of Hagi restaurant. It’s given a pronounced Japanese character in a marinade of miso paste, sugar, mirin and sake, then seared at high temperature until golden brown. Rocket salad, cherry tomatoes and a dusting of roasted sesame seeds creates a simple, fresh garnish to counter the richness, vitality and elaborate flavours of the foie gras.
Wine Companion: Foie gras can be paired with a wine which has balanced acidity to cut through the fattiness, and a touch of sweetness to support umami flavors. The Pinot Gris from Mudhouse Otago, New Zealand can do the job. Lots of fresh fruit flavours, this medium bodied wine delivers well.
Chef Chettha Intarawong’s Rossini – Yellow Tail Sushi Bar (YTSB)
Vie Hotel Bangkok
This salute to decadence at the YellowTail Sushi Bar (YTSB) has three lush ingredients in its exquisite rolls – foie gras, white truffle and Wagyu beef. The foie gras is marinated in a rich teriyaki sauce made by Chef Chettha Intarawong himself, and glistens with inviting moistness. It’s encased with sushi rice and seaweed, and wrapped in a strip of top-grade Kaisakaya wagyu beef sirloin. This opulent masterpiece is completed with white truffle miso sauce, with deep-fried lotus root placed atop as a crowning flourish.
Sake Companion: This probably hasn’t been tried often, but I want to pair Ohshukubai Umeshu with this dish. The Umeshu has a bit of acidity and also a wonderful delicate sweetness to it, coming from its plum base. Drink chilled, either straight or with a bit of soda.
Chef Boss’s Lobster Teppanyaki – Baba Iki
Sri Panwa Phuket
Teppanyaki is an opportunity for Japanese chefs to perform slick juggling skills while cooking on the griddle – in this case at Baba Iki it’s the lobster that’s the centre of attention, and showboating plays a supporting role to the fine quality of this flavoursome crustacean, a Phuket specialty. With the teppanyaki griddle as his stage, Chef Boss puts on the style to conjure up a magically seasoned mixture of succulent lobster meat and accompanying vegetables. Everything about this dish shouts star quality; it’s a show-stopping sensation.
Wine Companion: Let’s pair this island specialty with another one; Donnafugata’s Anthilia from Sicily. This wine has an aromatic crispness, white flower and fruit aromas, and a harmonious palate. It’s complex and intense, due to vines that cope with a hot climate and volcanic soil.
Chef Patree Changsil’s Salmon Bento Set – Kisso
Westin Grande Sukhumvit Bangkok
The Japanese obsession with neatness is exemplified by the bento concept – boxed meals of various courses, traditionally including rice, pickled vegetables and fish or meat presentations. This Salmon Bento Set at Kisso is an upscale version based purely on fresh Norwegian salmon, concocted by Chef Patree Changsil in eight inviting styles – salad, sashimi, spicy, nigiri, aburi, two kinds of grilled salmon and a salmon roll. Fittingly, with Norwegian salmon, it’s a smörgåsbord of taste sensations running the gamut of enticing Japanese flavours.
Sake Companion: It’s my lucky day, because one of my favourite sakes is on the list to go with this Salmon Set: Yukino Bousha Yamahai Junmai from Akita, a perfect combination of Yamahai method and Ginjou style. It has a smooth and refined acidity and settled, light fragranced flavour.
Chef Samuel Wilkes’ Sliced Seared Tuna with Chilli Daikon and Ponzu Sauce – Zuma
Anantara Phuket Layan Phuket
Anantara Layan put a Japanese spin on the pop-up craze by launching a Zuma restaurant for two months during Phuket’s festive season, and with the resort’s expansive sea vistas, it was appropriate that this seafood dish was a signature component of the menu. The tuna is cut into blocks, seasoned and seared on the outside, then refrigerated. Red onions are cooked with soy, sake, rice vinegar and sugar to make a spicy and sweet ponzu sauce, and the chilled tuna slices are rolled up, served with the ponzu sauce and garnished with fried garlic, sliced spring onions and chili daikon.
Sake Companion: The tuna makes a great pairing with Tedorigawa Yamahai Jikomi Junmaishu from Ishikawa. Made from Yamada Nishiki rice, this medium dry sake has good body and wonderful fragrance. Drink chilled.