Shinji Harada, Head Chef of Italian Cuisine Powerhouse Aroma Fresca, Creates a Pairing Paradise for SAKE HUNDRED’s Amairo

Cooking is just as much an art form as any other. And for many artists, working with a whole new medium is a chance to stretch creative muscles.

In Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district, Shinji Harada, chef-owner of the celebrated Aroma Fresca Italian restaurant, recently found such inspiration in SAKE HUNDRED’s Amairo dessert sake.

This new medium inspired Harada to design a pairing dish that included the seemingly incongruous elements of granola and rosy seabass a highly prized ocean bass species found in Japanese waters.

Chef Shinji Harada
Chef Harada was born in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture, a region known for its natural abundance and famous vistas. He trained at Tokyo’s Hattori Nutrition College culinary school and earned his wings under Chef Hirose Satake. In 1998, Harada struck out on his own with Aroma Fresca. His next restaurant, Sincronia di Shinji Harada, opened at the scenic and storied Royal Park Hotel Iconic Kyoto in April 2022.

The Master of Aroma Gets to Work

In English, the name “Aroma Fresca” translates into a culinary concept that transcends borders: “fresh aroma.”

Fittingly, this concept lies at the core of Chef Harada’s approach. At Aroma Fresca, he focuses on preparation and cooking methods that emphasize and enhance the fragrant bouquet of his dishes.

Aroma Fresca’s Chef-owner Shinji Harada

Chef Harada says he was “extremely impressed” with SAKE HUNDRED’s Amairo. He describes his first impression of the label as such:

“If wine is a straightforward pairing for food, sake lends contrast. Sake is a versatile beverage that goes with basically any type of cuisine. Amairo surprised me, though. It brought a concentrated and complex aroma that piqued my interest. I’ve loved sake my whole life, and I’ve tasted many, many brands, but Amairo is the first to truly inspire me as a chef."

Making the Most of Amairo’s Honey-like Sweetness

Amairo is made with a unique brewing method that uses additional, completed sake to replace some of its brewing water. Known as the “Ruijo Method,” this produces mellow flavors with complex layers of sweetness, acidity, umami and bitterness. Chef Harada notes how particularly moved he was by Amairo’s aromatic sweetness.

“Amairo brought to mind honey and maple syrup. Its aromas are rich and full-bodied. At first, I thought I might pair it with nuts. Then the answer came: granola. At my restaurant, I regularly use roasted granola with hints of maple and this provided the focus of the pairing.,” Harada recalls.

Harada already had a method for combining granola and fish to draw out the flavors of each. He knew, also, that the fish in question for this particular pairing dish should pack a punch to stand up to Amairo’s voluminous flavors and aromas. The fish that fit the bill, Harada knew, was rosy seabass —– known as nodoguro in Japan — rich in high quality fats. For this new pairing, Harada grilled the fish skin-on, applied a slightly tangy anchovy sauce to heighten the acidity, then sprinkled it with lightly oil-fried granola.

The combination of the umami-rich rosy seabass and granola dipped in oil to enhance its roasty aroma seemed a good match for Amairo’s bold flavors. “But that alone wasn’t enough,” says Harada.

“I wanted one more thing to play off of Amairo’s flavors: a little bit of bitterness,” Harada recalls. “I used ayu sweetfish once before when cooking with Amairo. It felt like the ayu’s bitterness balanced out Amairo’s sweetness. Following on from that previous pairing, this time I went with a scarlet eggplant and liver puree, breaking down the rosy seabass’ liver in a puree and brushing that onto the eggplant.”

Atop this eggplant and puree grill comes the granola-crusted seabass. Layering the ingredients on top of each other means they can be enjoyed together as a single harmonious dish. When tasted in this way, the aroma hits your nose first, followed by a balance of sweet, sour, bitter and umami. This already deep flavor experience is taken to the next level by Amairo, which connects all the dots of the many layers of this complex dish and brings a pleasing, lingering finish.

Tsushima rosy seabass with granola and scarlet eggplant brushed with liver puree 

Shedding Preconceptions

“Amairo has taught me to abandon my stereotypes,” Harada says with a laugh.

“The first time I drank Amairo, I did so with essentially no background information, and devised a pairing around that tasting. I was taken by surprise when I later learned that Amairo is a dessert sake. I think I’m something of a member of the old guard, and we tend to carry a lot of preconceptions. Dessert wine tends to come after or sometimes before a meal. With a dessert sake, my first impression wouldn’t normally be to pair it with vegetables or a main dish. But if I hadn’t broken from that preconception, something like this dish incorporating granola and rosy seabass surely never would’ve been born.”

The previous summer, Harada’s pairing of seasonal ayu sweetfish and Amairo proved a big hit with guests. “I think it was the most popular sake pairing we’d had in a year or two,” he recalls. “I’m really looking forward to serving this new seabass pairing dish.” 

Many guests frequent Italian restaurants for the wine. A restaurant like Aroma Fresca, a firmly Italian establishment, challenges norms by serving sake.

“Amairo has the potential to surprise our guests. That’s why we pair it with our courses. Amairo is the first sake we have used in our pairings, but it earns its place. Adding a sake to an Italian wine pairing course can create a very dramatic experience.”

Every challenge brings new discovery.

“I tend to pair sake with fish,” muses Harada. “But if I had the chance, I’d like to try my hand at pairing it with meat dishes, too.”

Judging from Harada’s enthusiasm, the novel pairing of sake and Italian food may birth even more creative and compelling creations to come.