If you ever get a chance to be the guest of honor at a dinner thrown by the heads of Niigata’s food and beverage world, I suggest you go for it. You might want to do some stretching first, though. Niigata’s old school, and that means festive dinners are eaten at low tables while guests sit on legless chairs — basically on the floor. It’s murder on the knees if you’re not used to it.
A local television crew was there as our hosts at O Noyya restaurant greeted Naren and me.
Naren was seated at a table of sake experts. At my table were authorities on Niigata's food. I was seated next to Takeshi Endo, a local businessman and an old friend of Akiko’s. Takeshi has an MBA from Boston University, a degree he called a “Masters of Being in America.” He also later referred to it as a ”BS in BS.“ He was armed with an electronic dictionary which proved less than useful when trying to identify some of the mountain greens and other vegetables we were eating. It informed us that shungiku was "spring chrysanthemum" or "garland chrysanthemum,” from which we learned nothing, but it was fun listening to Takeshi try to pronounce “chrysanthemum” (no disrespect to Takeshi, chrysanthemum's hard to pronounce). It reminded me of one of my teachers in China, who never got much closer than "krimasanathem."
Our first toast was going to be with beer until Kenji Ichishima, the tall, cosmopolitan president of Ichishima Sake Brewery whom Naren had adopted as his mentor, insisted that it be with sake. He had a point.
So we toasted with sake and Takeshi went through the process of quizzing the experts across the table about what we were eating. I’d be fine with not eating some of it again, like a slimy seaweed called mekabu and a tiny, unbelievably salty shrimp called agahiye, which means "red moustache." The agahiye was served with finely minced pickled daikon.
But the buri was unbelievable. Buri is what kampachi and hamachi become when they grow up, which is to say mature yellowtail. My hosts said the yellowtail from the cold waters of the Sea of Japan was fattier than others. They also said that, as far as they were concerned, buri worthy of the name must be wild. Most yellowtail apparently is farm-raised.
I later asked Akiko if there were a generic Japanese word for yellowtail. She said there wasn’t.
Anyway, the buri was delicious, but my hosts said that, because it was so fatty, eating it as sashimi soon caused palate-fatigue, so they also eat it as shabu shabu — the Japanese version of a hot pot. A simmering pot of broth was on the table, and they had me compare the buri raw and cooked, first insisting that I must never let my chopsticks lose their grip of the buri as I dipped it in the broth, lest someone else eat it. It was a joke, but the Japanese have a lot of protocol and I didn’t want to mess anything up.
But of course the buri immediately slipped out from my chopsticks' grasp and into the broth, but I recovered it instantly, preventing it from being overcooked.
Both preparations of buri were completely engrossing and I almost forgot that I had to interview a chef for Nation’s Restaurant News. Fortunately, I remembered in time and began quizzing Yokoyama Norio, the chef-owner of Murui Sushi Restaurant, one of 170 sushi restaurants in the city of Niigata, which has about 800,000 people.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but apparently I had gotten me and my entourage invited to Murui for a second meal. There Yokoyama-san’s underlings introduced us to some of the innovations that he had discussed during our interview, which I’m not going to tell you about lest I steal the thunder of my upcoming article.
But I will tell you that one of the pieces of nigiri sushi I had was topped with shrimp brain. That definitely required a good belt of sake, which I found went remarkably well with shrimp brain.
The highlight of that second meal, simply for the experience, was a dish of water and live shrimp, their legs scrambling in the water. Takeshi giggled and expressed a lack of interest in eating it.
“How do I eat it, I asked,” and Yokoyama-san tore off the shrimp’s head and had me suck out the interior as he ripped off the shell, so I could eat the body. Not bad, but the raw-shrimp sushi that followed actually was better for some reason. Kenji said that was generally the case. Maybe it’s similar to having roasted meat settle before carving it.
Then it was time to cater to Naren, which meant barhopping.
We started at a bar with walls lined in Americana where the bartender specialized in sake cocktails. Someone in our entourage produced peanuts and I asked if they were from Niigata, too.
Kenji laughed. “No, they’re from Chiba Prefecture,” he said, as if everyone knew that that’s where peanuts come from.
We then went to a bar where I sampled a sake cocktail made with cherry blossom liqueur and grapefruit juice squeezed to order. The bar snack served their was chicken breast boiled in sake, peppercorn-coated cheese, pomegranate and a frozen lychee imported from Taiwan.
The lychee was semi-thawed to a precise state in which it was easy to eat, but not so thawed that its texture would be compromised.
Naren made it to two more bars, but my last stop was a place simply called The Bar. And that’s exactly what it was. Hidden on, like, the 5th floor of an office building, a row of stools, a varnished bar, a solemn bartender with greased back hair and, behind him, an array of whiskeys, some of which even Naren had never heard of before. I sampled some Sazerac rye while Naren watched the bartender make, with great deliberation, the best Manhattan he had ever drunk.
The bartender was so intense, and we watched him with such seriousness, that eventually he broke down and giggled.