It is a gorgeous, cool evening in Abu Dhabi. Spring is upon us. Anyone who has been here or to Dubai will know what a premium a temperate evening is., especially as we await the onslaught of Summer. KOI, the restaurant, lounge and bar that celebrates the elevation of Japanese cuisine to a different level in the city by infusing it with some Californian influences, is the setting for my evening in which I will enjoy one of my favourite NV Champagnes, NV Bollinger Special Cuvée with one of the world’s great cuisines, Japanese; in particular sushi and sashimi.
Bollinger is more than the choice of James Bond. It has gained an iconic status in popular culture thanks to everyone’s favourite spy. Bollinger is of course also known for being a family run House. Started in 1829, it is also one of the oldest.
The restaurant is beautifully lit. Low lighting that conveys tranquility with a high degree of chic and style. Wood, very natural, tells me this can only be a Japanese restaurant. Very earthy. Tempting as it is to sit on the terrace, I choose the private dining room where I will not disturb other guests. Notwithstanding the serene atmosphere created by the décor, cool urban beats ensure a lovely balance.
Pairing sushi and sashimi has been troublesome over the years with many preferring more traditional wines from Chablis to Pinot Noir instead of Champagne. Beer and sake are the obvious suggested pairings, but with Champagne being so versatile, some regard it as the safest all round-pairing with Japanese cuisine. We are not all beer drinkers of course!
My waiter pours the first glass of Bollinger. The bubbles are refined and structured. There is an elegance about them. I find some light and hold up the glass – a mesmeric pale gold colour. I bring a glass to my nose, and the first aroma I get is of apple, but not fresh apple, more like a compote. I try it again and this time there is a peachy element. Finally before tasting, I lift it up to my nose again and there is a hint of bitter grapefruit. It is this complexity that endears me to Bollinger.
I have a sip and the mousse immediately makes an impression. It is rounder, consistent and creamy. Very dry and bready because of the high yeast level. I sip and swallow it – a beautifully long finish.
I start off with an organic field greens salad. Arugula radicchio, spinach and daikon amongst other ingredients are mixed with some balsamic, orange miso sauce and a bit of lemon juice and vinegar. The salad is a bit sweet and this balances well with the dryness of the Bollinger; a nice start.
Next I try the tuna tartar. The delicate chili oil and sesame oil mixed with the tuna on a thin crispy wonton is delicious. With a sip of Bollinger, again neither dominates.
Soon after, I am served a selection of sashimi, immaculately presented. The waiter talks me through the platter that includes the glorious Toro, or tuna belly, Yellowtail and of course Salmon. He possesses a fine balance between knowledge, and an ability to connect with the guest. There is a narrative that follows that serves to heighten my desire to try the sashimi. In particular it is the toro, the tuna belly that enthralls. People talk about its ability to just melt in the mouth. It is true.
The fattiness does not interfere with the integrity of the Bollinger. This is the key for me. One of the outstanding features of sashimi, especially the toro, is its subtlety and delicateness of flavor – I forego the soy sauce with the aforementioned. This is why it works so well. Neither overwhelms the other. The Bollinger is very aromatic and mixes beautifully with the toro, the latter being very unfishy in its taste. The same is true when I try it with the salmon and yellowtail sashimi. Fitting matches.
The sushi is served and some of the highlights are the sea urchin and the toro again. Tuna and sweet shrimp also make their way onto the platter. The mildly sweet shrimp is such an easy pairing. More challenging is the sea urchin though.
It is creamy and although offset by the crispness of the Bollinger, it is not as effective a pairing as the others, but passable. It is interesting, overall, I am more taken in by the presence of the Korean-sourced sea urchin on the menu, a decadently delicious option!
As the evening winds down, I am satisfied with the evening. Being able to add bubbles to Japanese cuisine means that those special celebratory moments need no longer be limited to traditionally Champagne friendly cuisines and in a restaurant like KOI I see no better venue for effecting this experience in Abu Dhabi.
I think about the words uttered by Madame Bollinger, words as immortal as the oft-quoted ones by Napoleon, Dom Perignon or Coco Chanel espousing the virtues of this magnificent drink that is Champagne: I drink my Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”