Dean Fuerth does not look like a confrontational man. The conservatively groomed, crisply dressed sommelier at Sushi Nakazawa has the bearing of an investment banker, and his wine list at the Greenwich Village restaurant is heavy on the expensive Burgundies that many fish-eating finance types favor. But as the chef behind the counter places two pieces of uni on my plate, Fuerth appears bearing a massive bottle with an image of green tomatoes on its label.
Laurent Cazottes, Fuerth explains, harvests the 72 varieties of tomatoes that he grows on his estate in southern France, destems them, quarters them, removes the seeds, and steeps them in grape spirit for almost a year. Cazottes distills the resulting pomace to produce the liquid that Fuerth now pours from a 1750 milliliter bottle - a little more than a magnum - into the small glass to my right. The liqueur de tomate concentrates the acidity, sweetness, spiciness and salinity of the fruit, flavors that parallel those of the sea urchin. The 72 Tomates is 18% alcohol and has some residual sugar, which give it a "textural richness" that works well with the uni. And, Fuerth adds, "The acidity of both the rice and soy sauce dry out the sweetness of the brandy."
The pairing, he says, "is divisive. Some people it scares the hell out, but other people love it." It's also thought-provoking. The combination recalls the Sicilian preparation of sea urchin with spaghetti and pushes the diner to think about the differences between the two pieces of uni served at Nakazawa, one from California and the other from Hokkaido. Why is the somm pouring this? What is the pairing telling me about both the food and the beverage?
Fuerth, 30 years old, took over as the somm at Nakazawa last summer after working in the same role at Betony and Bouley. "I was looking for something that was going to be intellectually stimulating - a side-step," he says of his decision to go to a sushi restaurant instead of one that serves western cuisine.
His wine pairings show the same unconventionality. The Japanese get some of their best tuna from Barbate, a small Spanish town on the Atlantic about 30 miles northwest of the Strait of Gibralter. Fuerth nods to that origin by matching the three pieces of tuna served at Nakazawa with a glass of 2008 Adega Viuva Gomes, a red made from Ramisco grapes grown in sandy soil in Colares just south of Lisbon. The wine has almost no fruit, but rather an intense ferric quality that matches the fish. He also likes the Blanco, which he describes as saline and mineral but with some richness on the palate and often pairs with pieces of mackerel, yellowtail, prawn and crab.
For that course tonight, he goes for an Austrian wine, but not a Riesling or a Grüner Veltliner, both commonly poured with sushi. Instead, he opts for the 2015 Nikolaihof Neuberger, a less heralded, more aromatic grape with enough acidity to stand up to the fattiness of the mackerel and a nose of flowers and oranges that work with the prawn and crab.
Fuerth also offers a sake pairing, and he thinks about the structure of the two beverages in similar ways. He compares a 2012 Pierre Gallard Condrieu to Junmai's Daiginjo sake; both, he says, are "soft and have a round texture, low acidity, and pleasantly floral, fruity aromatics." He serves the two beverages with a flight of Hokkaido scallop with yuzu kosho, big fin reef squid with sake reduction and shiso leaf, cornetfish with grated yuzu zest, and goldeneye snapper with lemon and sea salt. The low acidity in the beverages isn't a liability because the fish are prepared with citrus. Says Fuerth, "I find that the fruit qualities of the wine accentuate the aromatic qualities of the ingredients, and the texture of the wine doesn't overpower the delicate fish."
A successful pairing, he says, "needs to make sense with the food, have a story, and be a conversation piece." It also pushes the diner to a deeper consideration of what he's eating and drinking.
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