Morimoto Napa

One of the many things I discovered about the local cuisine while living in Japan that has shaped my understanding of ingredients’ quality is that the finest fish does not smell in the slightest like fish. Granted, this is a statement that is at least partly down to cultural preference, rather than intrinsic quality. For example, even the freshest, tastiest raw mackerel in the world will by its very nature have a fairly strong fish odor. Thus, “saba”—as mackerel is locally referred to in Japan—is by virtue of its odor level, towards the bottom of the Japanese fish species culinary hierarchy. (Silver lining: excellent saba is an absolute bargain in Japan.) Natural odor strength of a species aside, the greatest sashimi should not smell fishy. Rather, it has a subtle briny scent, like an icy ocean wind, not to put too poetic a spin on it. Anyway, this “wind” character, as opposed to fishiness, is a fundamental indicator of the general freshness of raw product and therefore quality. Great sashimi has other factors besides freshness that render it great, e.g. it should be tender yet firm and never mushy—but the texture, like so many of sashimi’s attributes, is linked to the freshness. It is the detection of a fishy smell in the entrances of many Japanese sashimi restaurants that makes me turn heel before I even sit down, because it is impossible to make great sashimi from fish that smells of fish. Except for mackerel.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the entrance of Napa’s Morimoto restaurant is bereft of scent except perhaps the slightest waft of Pacific Ocean breeze. Good start. But I suppose Iron Chef Masaharu Morimorto has by now got a knack for transporting the virtues of sashimi to far-flung corners of the world, with eponymous restaurants in Philadelphia, New York, Mumbai, New Delhi, Boca Raton, Honolulu, Mexico City, Maui and most recently Disney World.

I had lunch at Morimoto in August with a couple of wine blasts-from-the-past. The lunch menu was a bit sprawling and slightly lacking in focus, but well-executed, in spite of itself. We started with a “Chef’s Combination” sashimi platter, offering a good range of fresh, delicious, adeptly prepared sashimi, which actually lived-up to the rather hefty price tag. The delicate salmon, tuna, hamachi, snapper, and yes, saba flavors paired very well indeed with a bottle of Raveneau’s 2011 Chablis Premier Cru Forets, which was soft, creamy, expressive and open-for-business.

We then moved on to a trio of recently bottled Napa Cabernets. Before I mention what they were, I should explain that one of my lunch companions was the winemaker at Newton Vineyards—Rob Mann—having until a few years ago worked at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River, Australia, where we first met many moons ago. For fun, he’d brought with him Newton’s new, soon to be released single-vineyard wines, each named after their sub-regions: Spring Mountain, Yountville and Mt. Veeder. Readers familiar with Newton may be thinking that the Spring Mountain AVA wine is a no-brainer, but where did the Yountville and Mt. Veeder fruit come from? Ah, well, the answer lies in the 2001 purchase of Newton by LVMH, which since 1973, has owned vineyard land in Yountville and Mt. Veeder, when the company purchased vineyard land for Domaine Chandon. Thus, the best blocks of this great LVMH fruit that formerly went into patchwork wines, will henceforth go into these single-vineyard wines.

Our sashimi starter was more than satisfying for lunch, so we simply ordered a little something extra to marry with the reds: Morimoto Bone Marrow. A spicy, umami-laced rendition with all the rich decadence you could hope for—it fit the bill. All the new Newton Cabernets are from the 2014 vintage, bottled in May 2016, and due to be released in early 2017. The Spring Mountain (from 35-year-old vines) was an elegant, perfumed, pretty wine with floral notes over a core of plums and cherries—very taut with fine-knit tannins. Yountville (from 20-year-old vines) was classic Napa Valley Cab—rich concentrated opulent…my personal favorite. And Mt. Veeder was earthy and tannic with great depth structured for the long haul. All very exciting new additions to the Newton Vineyard portfolio.

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