At 33 years old, Dean Fuerth has survived more ups and downs in the restaurant business than a retired prizefighter. But restaurants and wine are his passions—which he pursues daily as beverage director at Bedford Street Hospitality, which operates Sushi Nakazawa in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Covid-19 forced the permanent closure of the group’s historic Chumley’s restaurant in New York City, famed for its speakeasy origins and literary patrons, and uneven restaurant regulations have made for a very tough 2020. Sushi Nakazawa in Washington, D.C. was able to open last summer on July 1 for indoor dining at 50% capacity, and in August the location had a record month. Business has been steady ever since, helping to sustain Bedford’s operations.
In New York City, regulations forced Sushi Nakazawa to close on March 13 of last year. “We’re on a quiet West Village street; a few outside tables wouldn’t have worked,” said Fuerth, explaining the decision not to offer outdoor dining when it became an option last July. Once the city eased regulations, the restaurant re-opened on September 30 for indoor dining at 25% capacity, installing glass dividers to socially distance parties at the sushi counter. The venue, which typically did 115-120 covers a night pre-pandemic, had sellout reservations a day after reopening. “Many of our regulars have come in to dine multiple times already, and the energy feels very positive,” Fuerth notes.
As a veteran of the restaurant trade for a dozen years, Fuerth’s resilience has helped his venues weather the pandemic. Starting in 2008 at Bella Blu Ristorante, Fuerth has worked his way up in the industry, from bus boy to sommelier to wine director. Among his stops were prestigious New York City restaurants like Commerce, Bouley Tribeca, Bar Boulud, and Betony, where he served as wine director. He joined Sushi Nakazawa in 2017. The Michelin-starred restaurant, which offers omakase dining, features a $150 menu at the counter and a $120 menu in the dining room. Pre-Covid, Sushi Nakazawa attracted a mix of Wall Street types, tourists, and fans of chef Daisuke Nakazawa, as well as NYU students who order off the a la carte menu in the lounge and have one glass of wine.
A Manhattan native, Fuerth is based at the restaurant’s West Village location and visits the D.C. property once a month. He oversees the beverage operation at both venues with strict attention to detail. “We do 90% of the gritty hard work behind the scenes—customers see the 10% part,” says Fuerth. “I’m more oriented to the business side and running a successful organized program.”
Sake and French wines dominate the 900-bottle wine list. Pairing with chef Nakazawa’s 7-course omakase cuisine is a delicate dance between wines that will appeal to the restaurant’s upmarket clientele and offerings that subtly complement the range of food flavors. Fuerth offers a different 1½-ounce sake pour for each course, and his staff will also suggest other wine pairings. Fuerth offers 133 sake selections, and has cultivated personal relationships with brewers, visiting Japan and securing access to very rare sake expressions. Choices range from $55 a 500-ml. of Kizakura Junmai Daiginjo to $14,000 a 500-ml. of Niizawa Absolute 0 Junmai Daiginjo.
Sake bestsellers are all from the Niigata prefecture. “It’s notable as a region for producing the clean, dry styles that our guests tend to prefer,” says Fuerth. Popular ones are Soto Junmai Daiginjo, ($120 a 720-ml. bottle; $25 a 1½-ounce pour), Kubota Hekijyu Junmai Daiginjo ($130 a 720-ml.), and Kirin Zan Junmai Ginjo ($150 a 720-ml.; $35 a 1½-ounce pour). The restaurant serves by-the-glass sake in traditional wine stemware. “Everything the guest touches should be luxurious—it adds to the high end experience,” Fuerth adds.
Sake remains an intimidating proposition for customers, 90% of whom have little experience with the category, Fuerth says. “Our sommeliers spend time educating customers and asking what they like to drink so they feel safe in our hands,” he explains. “You really have to be fluid in navigating between demographics, budgets, and backgrounds.” Sushi Nakazawa sommeliers themselves have discovered that sake education is basically a self-taught process. While Fuerth and several of his sommeliers in New York City and D.C. hold a certification from the Court of Master Sommeliers, he notes that “sake doesn’t really apply to the credentials. We learn on the job, by tasting and experience.”
For those patrons who are reluctant to try sake, Fuerth offers more than 800 wine selections, from $55 a 750-ml. of the 2016 Quinta do Perdigão Encruzado to $9,900 a 750-ml. of the 1966 Maison Leroy Grands-Echezeaux Grand Cru. France dominates, and Fuerth says he plans on adding more Champagne and Burgundy producers, as well as regional wines that are not typically considered for sushi pairings. Sushi Nakazawa’s New York City location offers 20 wines by the glass, from $16 for the 2018 Ridge Vineyards Grenache Blanc to $110 for the 2009 Château Calon-Ségur St-Estèphe. Bestselling bottles include Agrapart 7 Crus Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne ($130 a 750-ml.); the 2017 Lucien Crochet Le Chêne Marchand Sancerre ($115) and the 2015 Domaine Charles Audoin Les Longeroies Marsannay ($135).
The D.C. property offers 500 wine selections, focusing on France and California. About 35% of the list is sake, and luxury offerings are popular. “Before the pandemic, we were moving through a lot of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and comparably priced bottles on a weekly basis,” Fuerth notes. “We are still selling bottles in that price range after reopening, but with less frequency than before.” The venue also offers a whisky program, entirely Japanese-focused. Selections range from Suntory Toki ($15 a 1½-ounce pour) and Akashi White Oak ($18), to rarer offerings like Mars Komagatake Yakushima ($114) and the 1990 Wakatsuru Saburomaru 27-year-old ($240). Both Sushi Nakazawa locations serve five Japanese beers, including Anbai from Hitachino Nest and the fruity hefeweizen from Ginga Kogen, as well as heavier beers like Kizakura IPA.
As the restaurants look to emerge from the pandemic, Fuerth says, “We’re spending very cautiously and not replenishing higher-end wines.” Both properties use Coravin to offer reserve-level wine and sake pours. “Business has been very encouraging thus far, but I’m aware that at any point, the state or city government could decide to close restaurants again with no notice,” Fuerth adds. “I’m fortunate to have a large and well-stocked cellar to draw from, so for now I have a great deal of flexibility in terms of keeping the list intact and our guests happy while running through standing inventory.”
The past year “has been the great equalizer” for the restaurant industry, says Fuerth. “It will take a lot of time and effort to put the pieces back together,” he adds. “The stakes are higher than ever, and there’s a slew of new operational challenges, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and no more important time to prove we’re playing for keeps.”