Tokyo is home to some of the most highly skilled bartenders in the world, as well as more than a few food and drink menus to make the mind boggle. Alice Lascelles joined some of Britain’s top mixologists on a fact-finding mission to the Japanese capital
Last November, restaurateurs all over Paris choked at the news they had finally been overtaken by Tokyo in the Michelin star stakes. In a flurry of press coverage, Japan’s capital suddenly became the number one destination for foodies everywhere, boasting a whopping 191 Michelin stars, in comparison to Paris’s 98 and London’s comparatively underfed 50 (more of this in the next issue of Imbibe).
But what of the country’s bar culture? I’d heard many a bartender wax lyrical about Japanese bartending and the standards of service, so I decided to hitch a ride with the Diageo Reserve Brands Group, as it embarked on the Tokyo leg of its Inspired Luxury programme, meeting bartenders from some of the best bars in the city. Also on the trip were Tony Conigliaro, Gorgeous Group’s Spike Marchant, Andy Gaunt and Peter Kendall, both from Reserve Brands, and Tokyo first-timer Charles Vexenat of Lonsdale, all of whom would spend the next few days passing on, and picking up, some of the tricks of the trade…
.Tokyo: Day 1
I arrive, bleary-eyed, from the airport, to find the first Inspired Luxury training programme in full swing in a laquered, black and red bar called, confusingly, Afternoon Tea. The irrepressible Spike is holding forth to around 40 very sober-suited hotel bartenders on the delights of sniffing pieces of pear (all part of the luxury experience, apparently), causing shy smiles all round.
After a tequila tasting and a sub-zero Martini-making demonstration by Charles, Tony unveils a ‘Prairie Oyster’ containing an ‘egg yolk’ made from a Bloody Mary. This culinary feat is a hit with the crowd, if not with the translator, who struggles to translate some of the finer points of molecular mixology.
The day’s session winds up, and we go in search of cocktails in the Ginza district, home to some of the most ostentatiously weird and beautiful designer stores in the city: giant buildings resembling quilted glass, undulating metal and pock-marked concrete, teeming with well-heeled shoppers.
So it’s surprising to find that, by contrast, the city’s best bars are almost neurotically private – tiny, “window”less rooms hidden away in basements and on upper floors of cramped residential blocks, so that they are almost impossible to find. Fortunately, our Japanese hosts are on hand to guide us to the excellent Star Bar, a subterranean speakeasy-style drinking den barely bigger than a railway carriage. As we ponder our orders – there is no drinks menu – a large leg of home-cured ham sitting on the bar is quickly sliced into translucent slivers and served on tiny dishes (such beautifully presented snackettes are a regular feature in Tokyo and a lovely luxurious detail).
A string of equally tiny cocktails follow (never more than 4oz I would guess), with each one – White Lady, Negroni, Aviation – in a different, delicate cocktail glass.
When I ask if there are any cocktails made with saké or shochu in the house, manager Hidetsugu Ueno frowns: ‘You see, saké is a wine. If you make a cocktail with it you get less flavour and aroma as it’s very delicate – while adding shochu to a cocktail makes it very watery and thin,’ he tells me firmly. Here, he says, seasonal fruits are where the Japanese twist comes in, with local pears in November, golden kiwis in spring and Japanese mangoes in summer.
Then it’s into a cab (complete with the standard white-gloved cabbie and self-opening doors that knee-cap you every time) and off to the revered Tender Bar, which is reached by taking a cramped lift to the sixth floor of a charmless concrete block. Making our way past the adjoining hairdressers which is buzzing with geisha girls being made up for the night ahead, we find ourselves in what to my untrained eye looks like a sauna with a bar (the apparent lack of interior design is the sign of an establishment that’s truly serious about its art, my hosts explain later).
We sit in a reverential line at the bar while white-jacketed manager Ueda Kazuo makes me his signature Dawn of Spring cocktail with Absolut, saké and green tea liqueur. The garnish is a salty, pickled cherry blossom, which I’m told is traditionally added to tea at bridal celebrations. Other drinks include a superb Martini with Beefeater and Noilly, and a whisky sour served, surprisingly, in a flute.
Next stop is Xex, a glass-sided, eighth-floor lounge bar with beautiful views of a twinkling Tokyo. Bartender Shuzo Nagumo, a twenty-something former employee of Nobu in London, says he’s a big fan of innovation on show in British bartending: ‘Japanese bartenders have beautiful technique, but they are not free,’ he says, before whispering that he’s got a secret recipe involving liquid nitrogen in the pipeline. Meanwhile Pete amuses himself with a twist on the Bloody Mary involving a shot of chilled vodka served with halved cherry tomatoes dotted with salt and pepper.
After a sushi supper we stop at M Tokyo, a faintly futuristic hotel bar done out entirely in white. Spying the encyclopaedic collection of liqueurs, vermouths and bitters on the back shelf, Tony bounds over the bar and immediately starts cracking open various priceless bottles for a taste while the long-suffering staff look on anxiously. Yours truly, meanwhile, is landed with one of the less tantalising samples that comes in a bottle designed to look like a fried egg.
Last stop of the night is the glistening Baccarat Bar which serves every one of its (somewhat lurid) cocktails in a different piece of Baccarat glassware. It makes for a great show – Gaunt’s shochu and red wine float cocktail, complete with an eyeball-like ice ball suspended in the centre, is beautiful – but at £20 a pop the cocktails themselves are not up to scratch. Vexenat falls asleep in his green champagne cocktail and we decide to call it a night.
.Tokyo: Day 2
Day two of the Inspired Luxury sessions and today it’s the turn of the style bar tenders, who are that bit more lively (and include one gentleman with the most spectacular Elvis quiff). They seem tickled by ideas such as the perfume bottle martini atomisers, but it’s clear that they are nervous about challenging the very classical ways of the reigning generation.
In the afternoon Andy and I explore the boutiques of the fashionable Shibuya district where we marvel at exquisite cakes displayed under glass like priceless jewels and state-of-the-art designer shops where glass-walled changing rooms mist over at the touch of a button.
Tonight, dinner is at the exclusive Ryu Gin restaurant, which is famed for cutting edge Japanese cuisine with a playful twist. With only 20 covers, it’s almost impossible to get a table here, but Tony has pulled some strings, and we embark on a gastronomic odyssey of 13 courses. Highlights include langoustines with gold leaf, an oyster topped with a citrussy ‘pearl’, a mass of microscopic baby sardines dried to resemble a frill of lace and a dessert served on a slab screen-printed with a squid-ink barcode which, when scanned with a mobile phone, reveals the dish’s ingredients (see picture, above). The grand finale is a tiny scoop of mango sorbet served on a clear film, stretched tight over a glass bowl, wherein a burning mound of green tea emits a tiny puff of perfumed smoke at every spoonful.
Accompanied by a variety of delicious plum shochus, brandies, sakés and teas, it was, suffice to say, spectacular, as well as being highly entertaining and occasionally a little scary. Whether the bartending world will ever feel comfortable being as irreverant as this, however, will remain to be seen.
Replete, we waddle off into the night for a nightcap in Park Hyatt’s vertiginous New York Bar, famed for being the place where Scarlet Johansson nursed her sorrows in Lost in Translation. Situated on the 52nd floor of reputedly the second tallest building in Tokyo, the bar offers jaw-dropping views of the city on all sides. Alas, it also offers jaw-dropping prices and indifferent service, and so, after a swift Sidecar, most of us head home to bed.
.Tokyo: Day 3
Today I venture into Ginza’s buzzing foodhalls, determined to find something to take home. Everything looks tantalising and is exquisitely packaged, making it virtually impossible to tell whether you’re buying dried fish, fruit or soap – and with my meagre grasp of Japanese I was not going to find out. In the end I settle for some benign-looking sesame crackers and head off for a spot of Noh theatre.
First stop on the bar tour tonight is the chic shoebox-sized Bar Hoshi which could probably house 15 dainty Japanese at a push. Despite the lack of space, there are three very cheery, waistcoated tenders behind the bar who work with the precision of a Swiss clock. I particularly enjoy the house special, a JFK Martini made with Tanqueray, vermouth, a hint of Grand Marnier and manzanilla sherry, garnished with flamed orange zest and a stuffed green olive on a silver pin, and served with a thimble-sized bowl of cashews and olives to compliment the flavours.
Again, the details are key here: little complimentary dishes of smoked duck with silver forks, quirky garnishes fashioned from fruit rind and flowers; hot, mint-scented hand-towels presented on your arrival and on your return from the loo; the careful laying out of the tools before a cocktail is made – every step is executed with fastidious care.
After dinner – cooked sitting on tatami mats round an open fire – and a surreal karaoke session in a members’ club that resembled a Travel Lodge, we finished the trip crammed into what must surely be the smallest bar of all. Normally the Mod Bar has enough room for eight to stand, but at this time of night it was closed, and half full of furniture. But that didn’t deter the commendably game barman who proceeded to open up, squeeze us all in to the remaining six square feet, and serve us with a round of whiskies on the house. Now if that’s not a lesson in customer service, I don’t know what is.
Great balls of ice
Wherever you drink in Tokyo, one ingredient is always top-notch: the ice.
‘The Japanese think of ice as a tool,’ says the Star Bar’s Hidetsugu Ueno, proudly showing me a scrapbook of images from the plant where his ice is made. ‘We have our ice frozen over three days so it is very cold, very hard and very clear – and then we keep it at -20°C.’
In order to achieve the required cocktail temperature of -3°C (enforced with a remote controlled thermometer), Ueno also espouses a particular shake: ‘My hard shake goes 123, 123, 123, while twisting. You pull faster than you push so the ice rolls, giving you tiny shards of ice which the Japanese like – you have to have some dilution, you can’t just have cold metal,’ he says.
‘Drinks rely 100% on the ice,’ agrees the Tender Bar’s Ueda Kazuo, who also keeps all of his glassware cold in a bespoke chiller cabinet that runs the full length of the bar – a luxury that draws envious glances from the Brits.
Ice carving is also a big trend in Tokyo’s top bars – in several places we saw bartenders chip ice balls out of translucent blocks with a fork-like implement, before polishing the result with a cloth and dropping it into a rocks glass. Most impressive, however, was the ice ‘Brilliant’ Ueno produced (pictured, left), fashioning the tennis-ball sized ice gem from a block using nothing more than a viciously sharp pocket knife.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2008