2016 Epcot International Food & Wine Festival Tokyo Pairing
Aperitif: Sapporo Kuro Mana Beer
Appetizer: Miso Marinated Japanese Cheese with Anchovy
Yuzu Cured Madai Roll
Wagyu with Sea Urchin Roll
Wagyu and Blue Fin Toro Nigiri Sushi
"Natto" Fermented Soybeans and Toro with Pickled Plum Wasabi Roll
Paired with Junmai Dai Ginjyo – Hanaabi
Seared Wagyu (Tataki) and Yuba Roll Salad with Kanzuri Yogurt Dressing
Live Maine Lobster in Miso Broth
Paired with Tokubetsu Junmai – Suigei
Intermezzo: Fresh Orange drizzled with Plum Wine
Grilled Black Cod with Saikyo Miso Sauce
Wagyu Sirloin Steak with Black Balsami Vinegar and Manuka Honey Sauce
Paired with: Mugi Shochu Martini – Ginza no Suzume
Vanilla/Cognac, chocolate/whiskey infused Ice Cream with Caramel-flavored Baumkuchen
Debra Martin Koma
After having missed the Food and Wine Pairing at Tokyo Dining in the Japan Pavilion at Epcot the last few years due to scheduling conflicts, I was finally able to attend this special offering at the 2016 Epcot Food and Wine Festival. As they say, "good things come to those who wait." And this dining experience was definitely a "good thing."
Billed as an exploration of "Umami," the Tokyo Pairing was supposed to help participants understand and identify this less well-known taste. We all are familiar with the tastes of salty, sweet, sour and bitter, but the savory taste of umami is harder to describe. In fact, its existence has been debated for years, so I was curious to find out more.
The Umami experience is held in a back corner of the Tokyo Dining restaurant in the Japan pavilion. Tables were set attractively with chopsticks and origami for three guests each. (Don't panic — there's silverware for those who aren't chopstick-proficient!) There were just a few tables, so participation is very limited. The gracious staff welcomed us as we were shown to our seats by the restaurant manager. After being seated we were immediately served a hot, moist towel to refresh ourselves. Such a civilized tradition.
Soon after, we were brought our appetizer and an "aperitif" — although I'm not sure I'd classify the thick, black, almost Guinness-like Sapporo Kuro Mana Beer that we were served as an aperitif! Still, it was a huge glass, and, if you're a beer lover I think you'd find that it paired well with the Miso-Marinated Japanese Cheese with Anchovy. My tablemates and I had been a bit concerned that the fishy saltiness of the anchovy would spoil the appetizer, but it was a really subtle flavor, and we all enjoyed the little hors d'oeuvres more than we thought we would.
Jennifer, our host for the late afternoon event, shared a bit of the restaurant's background as well as her own, before she dove into explaining the foods that we'd be eating and how they were prepared. Clearly, the emphasis was going to be on savory side. She did a great job of communicating the information about the "discovery" of Umami, and made sure that we all felt welcome, stopping by each table periodically as the event progressed.
Our first course was a plate of beautifully presented sushi and small bites, with most ingredients actually not cooked at all. Although I'm not a sushi connoisseur by any stretch, I have been trying to expand my palate with various items over the last year or two, so I tried each of the morsels in front of me. The most challenging was the Wagyu with Sea Urchin Roll (in the upper left corner of the photo below). I'd never had sea urchin before and, even though many I've heard many foodies rave about it in the past, its slimy appearance and texture were more than a little off-putting for me. The taste was not dissimilar to that of oysters or clams — my husband happily describes it as "taking a bite of the ocean," but to me it's more like having an unwanted gulp of funky sea water. I'm happy to say that now that I've tried it, I never have to again! The other items went down a little more easily, accompanied by a truly smooth Junmai Dai Ginjyo sake that was served in a square, wooden cup with a little bit of salt smeared along the one corner to enhance the flavor.
After several bites of the raw Wagyu and the other sushi, I felt I was starting to identify Umami a little more clearly. Although I'm told that tastebuds all over your tongue can detect the taste, for me, it seems to hit toward the back of the middle of my tongue. It's very hard to describe, but it is most definitely not sweet or salty, nor is it bitter or sour. It's just… umami.
Our second pairing was easily the biggest conversation piece of the event — a nearly whole lobster (sans tail), one per person, prepared in a miso broth and served in a huge bowl, along with a salad and several slices of seared (but still nearly raw) Wagyu beef. The bright red crustacean was certainly eye-catching, and I must admit that after several mouthfuls of the tasty white lobster meat, I was getting full.
This course came with another sake, this one Tokubetsu Junmai, served over ice with a twist of lemon. This sake was even smoother than the first, and was able to cut through the richness of the lobster. Even though I didn't finish any of the very generously poured beverages, I should note that the servers were happy to refill any of our beverages multiple times at any point during the presentation.
A Yuba Roll Salad with a light, slightly sweet yogurt dressing was served alongside the lobster. It came with a few slices of seared Wagyu (which was still extremely rare) on the side. If you've heard of Wagyu beef before, you know that it is instensely marbled and very expensive. To be presented with this premium quality ingredient, prepared in a variety of ways, was a real treat and a very smart way to help us understand the Umami taste.
After an intermezzo of fresh oranges soaked in plum wine — so refreshing and palate-cleansing! — we received our third pairing. Cooked food!
There was a beautiful piece of grilled black cod as well as a thoroughly cooked piece of Wagyu, accompanied by yet another cocktail, this one a variation on the martini.
This drink was made with the distilled spirit known as Shochu, accented with a slice of cucumber, and was probably my favorite beverage of the evening.
Just when I thought I couldn't possibly fit another bite, our servers brought dessert: two scoops of ice cream — vanilla infused with cognac, and chocolate infused with whiskey — with a wedge of caramel-flavored Baumkuchen. I didn't note much of an Umami taste in this sweet surprise ending to a wonderful meal, but that is not a complaint!
As the meal wrapped up, I had the chance to talk to the chef, Yutaka, who had overseen the event, and the sushi chefs who were busy preparing sushi rolls for diners for the rest of the evening. They all seemed very proud of the Tokyo Pairing event, and rightly so.
At $150 per person, this event is a little more expensive than most of the other Food and Wine pairings that the Epcot Food and Wine Festival offers, but it is well worth the splurge. Not only do you get a variety and an abundance of well-prepared food made with very expensive, high-quality ingredients, coupled with virtually limitless beverages, service is top-notch, the atmosphere is relaxed, and at the end you get to take home your little origami swan, your chopsticks and the chopstick rest. If you are looking for an experience that is educational and a little more adventurous for our Western palates, this Tokyo Pairing gets my highest recommendation.
Tokyo Pairing: Umami — Three unique style pairings of Wagyu beef, lobster tail and king crab legs, and sushi prepared using naturally fermented ingredients and sauces. Pairings will feature such dishes as Wagyu sea urchin, lobster and king crab legs tempura with salt Koji cheese — all paired with sake and beverages.
WHERE: Tokyo Dining, Japan pavilion
WHEN: Thursdays, 4:30 – 6 p.m. DATES: September 15, 22, 29; October 6, 13, 20, 27; November 3, 10.
PRICE: $150 per person plus tax, gratuity included. (Epcot admission required.)
Let us know if you attend this special dining experience this year. Leave your comments on our Food and Wine Festival Rate and Review page HERE.