At Tsubaki, a Bridge Between Sake and French Wine

What makes Courtney Kaplan’s wine list one of the country’s most exciting, in 10 bottles.

Los Angeles has long been a mecca for Japanese culture—and cooking. The tale of sushi in America basically revolves around southern California. And L.A. could quote regional ramen styles when most of the country was still heating Nissin packets.

For this reason, when I really wanted great Japanese food during my years in San Francisco, I had one unimpeachable rule: Hop on a plane to L.A. On my birthday, for instance, I’d usually swing south with a bottle of red Burgundy in my luggage. One, because it’s the best thing to drink with most sushi (don’t @ me). And two, because most Japanese restaurants in L.A. are like Japanese restaurants across the land: They slake patrons’ thirst with a handful of obvious sake selections; wine choices are barely existent.

Which brings us to Tsubaki, a 32-seat izakaya in Echo Park owned by Courtney Kaplan, who runs the room and works as the sommelier, and her longtime boyfriend Charles Namba, the chef. It is an izakaya in the traditional sense, in that it’s a place to drink with some food alongside. But it’s also a place that unpacks a lot about Japanese culture, and L.A. culture, today. Nowhere more so than on Kaplan’s drinks list: In a mere 23 sakes and about the same number of wines—plus some thoughtfully chosen shochus and beers—it speaks volumes.

The wines are all a mix of postmodern and old-fashioned French, which echoes the fact that Namba’s menu includes not only traditional items like the egg custard known as chawanmushi and onigiri (grilled rice balls) but also a lot more animal fat than you might expect, in dishes like a sake-drenched foie gras terrine and abalone with brown butter infused with spicy yuzu kosho.

As much as anything, this reflects Namba and Kaplan’s paths through New York, where they met. He cooked at Chanterelle, one of the city’s French staples, before moving on to EN Japanese Brasserie, an early spot to mesh the two traditions. Meantime, she had worked at Decibel, a speakeasy-cum-punk sake bar that was—and is—an East Village staple. Decibel’s almost entirely Japanese staff provided a deep after-hours sake education, similar to the sort that I and many other patrons received there in the late 1990s. And Decibel stood out not only for its homage, down to the graffitied walls, to legendary dives like CBGB, but also for its pioneering role in sake evangelism, with a comprehensive list of unusual sakes in every style imaginable. If you wanted to learn about sake in that era, you went to Decibel. (“Learn” may be too strong a word, since most nights ended up with us drinking until bleary, fueled by bowls of marinated baby squid and dystopian skepticism about the first dot-com economy.)

Eventually the couple moved to L.A., where Namba had grown up with his Japanese parents. While they looked for a place to open their own restaurant, Kaplan took work at two pillars of modern L.A. wine culture: the downtown restaurant Bestia and the wine shop Domaine LA.

That sheds light on the two brilliantly edited sides of Kaplan’s selections. She glides effortlessly between the less-is-more subset of French wine, and a sake list wonderfully tilted to the growing number of indie choices available on these shores. On the wine side, Kaplan favors thoughtful choices from trendy places, like the Jura producer Champ Divin, plus some popular naturalist picks like Claire Naudin’s “Le Clou 34,” a skin-macerated aligoté—all with a mind toward the importance of textures and umami in Namba’s cooking. It is, quietly, a texture-lover’s wine list.

The sake half of the equation is where Kaplan really shines, though, in that she has captured the alt-sake world in less than two-dozen bottles. That’s a complicated task. Sake remains an industry dominated by large breweries sold in the United States by a handful of distributors, who often compose their customers’ sake lists in the mold of corporate beer and wine distributors. So Kaplan’s divergence is notable, although she admits she’s more willing to indulge big brands in sake than in wine, choosing seasonal releases from Otokoyama, for instance.

If many sommeliers gravitate toward the “fanciest” sake styles, namely highly polished daiginjo, Kaplan offers just three—one of which is a yamahai (an archaic style that promotes wild lactic acid bacteria in fermentation and results in more characterful, wine-like sake). Instead she prefers to showcase nama (unpasteurized) and other styles that draw on old-fashioned production techniques.

With nearly half the wines and almost all the sakes available by the glass and carafe, it’s possible to effortlessly hop between the two, which is Kaplan’s intent. That interplay offers a snapshot of where Japanese food culture is today. Among other things, for decades there has been a deep love affair between the Japanese and the French, such that you can find some of the world’s most impeccable French cooking in Tokyo, along with some of the world’s top natural-wine bars, while many of the best chefs in Paris right now are Japanese (as are a handful of top winemakers in France).

This is representative of the fluidity—a better choice than that other “F” word—of cultures that’s bursting across L.A. right now, perhaps more than anywhere else. But it also represents Kaplan and Namba’s personal tale—one that doesn’t dwell on old intersections of food and ethnicity, but instead acknowledges that you can drink well and thoughtfully today without the weight of old expectations. That philosophy should serve them well as they open Ototo, a sake bar next door, this fall. In the meantime, Angelenos have the great resource of Kaplan on the floor each night at Tsubaki, gliding between sake and wine in a way that says everything about how we drink today.

tsubaki wine list los angeles

Bubbles!

Champ Divin Brut Zero Crémant du Jura 2015 $16/$64
Fabrice and Valerie Closset-Gaziaux are southern Jura newcomers, up the road from famous names like Ganevat. Their no-dosage sparkling wine is brisk and savory, and the lean chardonnay flavors commend themselves to the menu’s varied textures. Both this and another Jura bottle, the “L’Hôpital” savagnin from Peggy Buronfosse, are a sign that Kaplan can play in well-trod regions without becoming a slave to fashion.

Classic for a Reason

Philippe Tessier Cour-Cheverny 2016 $15/$60
Tessier is one of the standard bearers of the Loire’s Cour-Cheverny, home to the white grape romorantin. Romorantin gets a lot of yay! different! love these days, some of which is undeserved. (It has a mineral aspect reminiscent of crushed pencils, which depending on your elementary-school experience, may be an important taste memory.) But Tessier’s is fragrant and fruity, and he’s masterful with the grape’s waxy texture, yielding a wine with a lot more sake-like gloss than the brisk aromas would indicate.

Dark Horse

Tamagawa “Ice Breaker” Junmai Muroka Nama Genshu $15/$36/$51
So much uniqueness in one bottle. First, Tamagawa is headed by Philip Harper, the first non-Japanese to achieve the rank of master brewer. He created “Ice Breaker” as a rich summer sake—a touch boozy and meant to be drunk over ice. Its higher alcohol level is naturally achieved, which is to say it’s not just unpasteurized (nama) and unfiltered (muroka) but also genshu: no water is added to dilute it. If Kaplan’s wines lean to the subtle, this sake pulls no punches.

Orange Crush

Claire Naudin “Le Clou 34” Bourgogne Aligoté 2015 $65
Naudin workes in the Haute-Côtes de Nuits, the high ground above Burgundian villages like Nuits-Saint-Georges. Her skin-fermented version of aligoté, from very old vines, remains one of the earliest—and best—alt-interpretations of this newly appreciated grape. Where you’d expect it to be lush, it’s surprisingly taut and spicy—an unexpected counterpoint for dishes like the abalone.

The Failsafe

Kuroushi “Omachi” Junmai Ginjo $15/$36/$74
A big, fragrant, luscious style of ginjo, made from an heirloom rice variety called Omachi, which is grown only in the Okayama prefecture, across an inland sea from Osaka. With no alcohol added but not quite the highest level of rice polishing, junmai ginjo has broad appeal—but even when choosing a traditional style, Kaplan tries to find a unique twist.

Domaine Bobinet Hanami Saumur Champigny 2017 $54
Sébastien Bobinet offers a fresher interpretation of the cabernet franc-based wines of Saumur, and the Hanami (which refers to spring flowers, specifically cherry blossoms) is particularly light and fruit-driven; in his mind, when more vegetables are on the plate and you need less structure. That’s also a good description for California eating, and this is a great selection that can do well by Namba’s more modest plates, like salmon tartare or baby corn tempura.

The End-of-the-Night Bottle

Yuho Junmai $11/$28/$58
Another sake from Ishikawa, this time from Mioya, one of the smallest breweries imported into the U.S. (and one of the few with a female president, Miho Fujita). A rich, luscious, autumnal sake that is a bit of a departure for a junmai. What you might call a sake da contemplazione—one that’s equally good on its own, for that last taste of the evening.

Natty by Nature

Fabien Jouves “You F&#@ My Wine?!” Vin de France 2016 $52
Jouves is among a hardy handful trying to drag Cahors, in the Southwest, into the 21st century. This is malbec, plus a bit of jurançon noir and valdiguié, done in a partially carbonic style to lighten up what can be a ponderous grape. It’s as close as Kaplan gets to a steak wine—and the volumes in which it’s consumed in Paris wine bars (where the name is uncensored) are evocative of true izakaya tradition.

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

Tedorigawa Yamahai Daiginjo $16/$38/$78
Based in Ishikawa, Tedorigawa has amassed a devoted following for toeing the line between bolder styles of sake and a certain finesse. This is a unique style: yamahai isn’t often made using both such highly polished rice, yet also with alcohol added. It might seem counterintuitive, except that the result offers a lot of umami without going over the top.

Back to the Future

Fukucho “Forgotten Fortune” Junmai $13/$32/$66
From Imada, another female-led brewery. Owner and brewer Miho Imada took the extraordinary step of reviving an extinct rice breed, Hattanso—which was once considered a key Hiroshima variety—in order to make this sake. The rice is lightly polished, adding a bit more savory character without the sake becoming too rich or heavy.

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