Features 4 minutes 13 March 2023

Yoshino’s Sommelier On Creating a Balanced Wine List for Chef Yoshida’s Meticulous Omakase

Meet Mayumi Kobayashi, the star studded sommelier bringing extra flavor to Japanese cuisine.

In 2021, Tokyo chef Tadashi ‘Edowan’ Yoshida relocated his omakase restaurant, Yoshino — at the time ranked as a top three sushiya in Japan — to its current Bowery address in New York City. At a time when restaurants were reopening and the city was renormalizing, Chef Yoshida took a chance and witnessed almost immediate success. In 2022, the 10-seat omakase bar with two seatings an evening, was awarded its first MICHELIN Star and named The New York Times’  Best New Restaurant of 2022.

It was also that year where Mayumi Kobayashi, revered for her roles as general manager at MICHELIN-recognized Mifune and MICHELIN-starred Sushi Amane, joined Yoshino as general manager, and shortly after, as certified sommelier.

“I was always the unofficial sommelier at all the previous restaurants I managed, thanks to my wine knowledge from working at one of the largest wine stores in the country all throughout my college years,” explains Kobayashi, who worked at the former Big Y Wines located in Northampton, Massachusetts. She recalls how they used to sell some of the rarest Burgundies and Bordeaux. “I used to admire how pretty the Chateau d’Yquem vintages were with all their different golden hues,” shares Kobayashi.

After her prestigious roles at Mifune and Sushi Amane, Kobayashi recognized that, “there was a growing necessity to prove and expand my beverage knowledge to continue climbing in this industry, so becoming a sommelier officially with a certification to show my level of proficiency, felt like a natural step.” It so happened that in the midst of Kobayashi’s studies through the Court of Master Sommelier’s Intensive Certified Sommelier Program that Yoshino was awarded the MICHELIN Star. "Talk about mountains upon mountains of pressure to pass the certification exam,” she adds.

We spoke with Kobayashi about some of her favorite pours on the menu, how she’s learned to balance both general manager and sommelier roles, as well as how she’s elevated the wine list to reflect Yoshino’s recent accreditations.

How do you find the balance to play both GM and head sommelier?
It’s not easy finding the time to do both positions, but for me, being a sommelier makes my GM job more fun and exciting. I get to experience things as a sommelier that a GM wouldn’t. Being the sommelier also makes it easier for me as GM to achieve the financial goals of the business, so the pros outweigh the cons.

What are some of the outstanding wines offered by the glass?
My absolute favorite pour by the glass is our champagne, NV Cuvée Sainte Anne Brut by Chartogne-Taillet.

What about Chartogne-Taillet makes it your favorite pour?
Chartogne-Taillet’s Cuvée Sainte Anne Brut pairs incredibly well with all the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine and especially well with chef Yoshida’s omakase. So well, in fact, even though it is allocated and quantities are limited, I still decided to make it our house champagne by the glass instead of offering it by the bottle to make it more accessible to everyone. It’s an exceptionally delicious champagne in its class, and I wanted to give as many people as possible an opportunity to enjoy it.

What are some of your favorites on the bottle list?
As a bottle parent, it’s hard to choose! I still remember my sommelier classmate saying to me, “Who loves Burgundy more than you? No one.” I love my Champagne bottle children just as equally though.

How did you work to elevate these offerings after Yoshino was awarded its first MICHELIN Star?
It was always my goal to expand and elevate our beverage offerings even before we were awarded the Star. It’s also about cultivating a close relationship with vendors as they are just as integral in making a restaurant’s drink program successful as a sommelier. It takes an in-and-out-of-house team effort to achieve that.

What does “elevating” a wine list mean to you?
Anyone can include expensive and rare bottles on a menu. For me, “elevating” means the whole package. The beverage list matters, but the explaining, presentation, the stemware, pouring, talking to the customers about the bottle and making every single glass and bottle order feel special regardless of price point is what elevates an experience in my opinion. Sure, you can have a great beverage list, but can you make the whole experience memorable for them?

How do you reflect the four pillars of Japanese cuisine the restaurant lists on the menu—seasonality, beauty, balance, and comfort—in your wine selections?

Seasonality is more strongly seen in sakes. Some sakes are released at certain times of the year and are highly sought after as they are usually limited releases. I make a concerted effort to include seasonal sakes on our beverage list when they are available.

It makes chef Yoshida and I happy when guests take a moment to admire how beautiful the glassware and plates are. Some are irreplaceable as they date back to the Edo period [between 1603 and 1867]. I’d like to mention some of the master artisans who enhance our guest’s beverage experience at Yoshino: Our Edo Kiriko carafe and glasses are made by Tomokazu Noguchi, Morihiko Takei and Hideki Hasegawa. Our ceramic tea cups, sake carafe and sake cups are by Makoto Yamaguchi and our tatami coasters are made by Kuboki Tatami Ten. I believe the beauty of traditional Japanese craftsmanship really shines at Yoshino.

I do my best to select quality teas, wines and sakes for our beverage program. Not all beverages pair well with food and finding bottles that pair well and even compliment Chef Yoshida’s omakase is no easy task. Pairing is a delicate balancing act and I look for beverages that enhance Chef Yoshida’s omakase experience for the guests.

Most people are unaware that wine, especially white Burgundy, pairs spectacularly well with sushi and especially well with chef Yoshida’s omakase. Guests are comfortable with pairing sake with sushi, but not as much with wine. I believe it’s my job as a sommelier to broaden the guest’s perspective and offer them a beverage experience they’ve never had when they are open to it.

What is your process for pairing wines with such traditionally unique flavors?
White Burgundy and sushi is my personal definition of a match made in heaven. The acidity from the rice vinegar with the minerality and brininess of the fish and shellfish, especially sea urchin, paired with a beautifully crisp white Burgundy is just mouth-wateringly delicious. I also like to pair Chef Yoshida’s bluefin tuna courses (there are always four courses of bluefin tuna with his omakase) with an elegant Pinot Noir.

What has been one of the more challenging flavors or dishes on the menu to pair with? What did you end up pairing with it?
One dish that comes to mind from this past season’s menu is the cod milt in ponzu sauce. The rich, creaminess of the cod milt and ponzu sauce together were a dream, but was made even better when paired with Suehiro Ken, a Daiginjo from Fukushima. Suehiro Ken is a dry and bold sake, and it cuts through the rich creaminess of the cod milt. Chef Yoshida also puts a piece of kombu underneath the cod milt for added umami, so the minerality of the cod milt and kombu were perfectly balanced with the minerality of Suehiro Ken as well.

Can you talk about your approach for choosing wines for the omakase menu?
A lot of sushi omakase restaurants in New York change their menu drastically and frequently and that’s become the norm here, but traditional Japanese sushi restaurants in Japan actually do not change their menu so frequently or drastically, they’re based off the seasons.

Just like winter does not suddenly turn into spring, all the season’s fish reach their peak at different times. Staying with tradition, chef Yoshida’s omakase changes with the seasons. The changes in his menu are staggered, usually one course at a time, as the fish reach their peak at various times throughout the season and the beverage offerings reflect that.

Evan Sung/Yoshino
Evan Sung/Yoshino

Hero image: Evan Sung/Yoshino

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