Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hana and von Hövel

Sometimes simple is best.

It’s remarkable how the most authentic restaurants – much like the most expressive or individualistic wines – polarize their audiences. The clearer the voice, the more people seem to either love it or hate it, leaving very little room for the middle ground. So I couldn’t help but chuckle at what I found today when looking up the phone number for Hana, one of my favorite Japanese restaurants on the non-Jersey side of the Philly burbs.

Hana may not easily win your heart. It’s not at the level of the Jersey spots – Fuji and Sagami – I hinted at above. And Hana’s not likely to win awards. It’s a non-descript looking restaurant located in a non-descript strip mall on a busy, commercial stretch of road. There’s nothing flashy about its interior: just a few basic booths and tables, a five-seat sushi bar, a couple of hanging paper lamps and neutral walls decorated with a modicum of traditional Japanese artwork and knickknacks. And there’s nothing flashy about the food. The rolls don’t have cute names and don’t sprout spines or include intentionally international ingredients. There aren’t any sushi “boats” or any strips of plastic grass adorning the plates. No spicy mayo or cream cheese oozing here and there, either.

What you get is simple food – spartan almost – that’s simply prepared. It’s fresh, pure of flavor and clearly made with care. It’s not all about the sushi and sashimi, though they’re very good. The cooked dishes are also excellent, from belly warming tempura udon to handmade pork shumai to perfectly pickled and refreshing vegetable sunomono. The service is quiet – never forward but always attentive. I’ve not been to Japan but something tells me this is the real deal, a notion seconded by old friends who eat at Hana and have spent time in Japan.

I love it. But apparently, lots of people hate it. Citysearch is not a site I ever use intentionally but it appeared at the top of the Google listings recently when I searched for “Hana Japanese restaurant Wayne PA.” All I wanted was a phone number. What I found was a bunch of user reviews that careened from spiteful to glowing then right back to downright awful.

* * *

Sometimes simple can be complicated.

Hana is a BYOB spot. When I go there, I invariably take Riesling. It’s become a stereotypical pairing with all variety of Asian cuisines. In this case, the stereotype delivers substance.

Saar Riesling, von Hövel 2007
$17. 8% alcohol. Screwcap. Importer: Rudi Wiest, Cellars International, San Marcos, CA.
A growing number of respected wineries in Germany are producing simple, value-oriented bottlings for the export market. A quick look at the front label of this example from Weingut von Hövel reveals little other than the producer’s name and the grape in the bottle, Riesling in this case. There’s also a pretty picture, a definite change from the classically prosaic labeling style used by most producers for their higher-level wines. In at least one sense, this simplicity no doubt works in the wine’s favor, as people who have developed a comfort level with Riesling (but perhaps not with the complexities of German labeling syntax) are likely to be drawn to the bottle. That simplicity also works in the winery’s favor, as the lack of any village, vineyard or Pradikat designation leaves the producer free to blend wines from multiple sites and, if deemed necessary, to chaptalize.

That very simplicity, though, is just as likely to be misunderstood, to play right into unjust stereotypes. A savvy Riesling shopper might spot the 8% alcohol level designated in small print on the back label of the bottle and surmise that the presence of residual sugar is a strong likelihood. Given the simplicity of the front label, though, the absence of any equally simple mention of style (dry, off-dry, etc.) is very likely to result in misunderstanding. The same people that dismiss Hana for its lack of flash or its dainty portions – or anyone, for that matter – might be just as likely to write-off von Hövel’s Riesling because it’s light or, more likely, because it’s “sweet.” And that would be a shame.

Von Hövel’s Saar Riesling is simplicity embodied. It’s light, direct and easy to like. And yes, it’s a little sweet. But it’s a classic expression of Saar Riesling, its hint of sweetness balanced by wiry acidity and its finish crackling with pungent, slate-y minerality. That gentle sweetness helps the wine work with the vinegar in sunomono. Its acidity provides lift to the weight of the rice (just a touch gummy and under-seasoned on our most recent visit to Hana) in nigiri and provides more than enough cut for the natural oils of salmon, hamachi and other salt water fish. The wine’s vaguely sour minerality intertwines effortlessly with the flavors of the sea expressed in sushi and sashimi. Its pretty expression of apples, white peaches and lemons does not overwhelm the palate. And its overall delicacy is in fine balance with the grace and harmony of a typical Japanese meal.

It’s a pure, expressive wine. And much like a no-nonsense, traditional Japanese restaurant, it's just as likely to be despised as it is to be embraced.

387 W. Lancaster Avenue [map]
Wayne, PA 19087
Hana Japanese on Urbanspoon


Susannah said...

I enjoyed reading this post and felt like running out for Japanese food. Do you ever drink Austrian zinfandler with spicy asian cuisine? Monica Caha imports a number of great austrian brands into the US that would work perfectly.

David McDuff said...

Hi Susannah,

Glad I fired your hunger. I have to admit I've never tried Zinfandler (or Zierfandler as it's more commonly known), not even when in Austria -- though I was in Vienna rather than in the South.

Stadlmann is the only producer whose Zierfandler appears to make it into the US, courtesy as you mentioned of Ms. Caha. Do you work for her or at a shop where it's sold?

Lyle Fass said...

Love Von Hovel. After a very tough 06 their 07 vintage was great from top to bottom.

For Zierfandler Alphart is also good and they are in the Thermenregion

Joe Manekin said...

The only Von Hovels I've had recently have been this very bottle, their '07 QbA. And a delicious bottle it is.

An old post of mine on the '05 Stadlmann Zierfandler:

David McDuff said...

Lyle, Joe,
Thanks for the comments. Two more to add to my shopping list, which just seems to keep growing and growing.

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