Carlo Splendorini at Pabu. [Photo: Noelle Chun]
Veteran chef and restaurateur Michael Mina opened up Pabu, his elegant play on sushi and izakaya fare, yesterday, and as always, Mina Group Head Bartender Carlo Splendorini is behind the cocktail program. Splendorini's focus this time is inventive twists on Japanese-inspired cocktails, intended to please American drinkers. It's a drink menu distinguished by delicate flavors, complex technique, a sense of ceremony, and a robust selection of Japanese spirits, especially Japanese whisky.
Mina and co-owner Ken Tominaga's fare spotlights sushi and izakaya—small, often shared, tapas-like dishes that include such delicacies as robata (seasoned and grilled skewers over an extremely hot, clean-burning charcoal grill), chirashi (rice punctuated with fish and marinated vegetables), and chawanmushi (a silky, savory custard). Tominaga's approach to this food is fairly traditional, though the modern Financial District setting is airy, marked by high ceilings and lots of glass. With lots of delicately seasoned, umami-rich Japanese food on the menu, not to mention the fine-dining expectations of a Michael Mina restaurant, Splendorini had a tall order in terms of combining authenticity and speed. Japanese bartending is famously detail-oriented and technique-driven, a slow and patient process that observes the ceremony of drink making—everything from the elaborate hand-carving of ice to the difficult, highly choreographed "hard shake" to the preparation of ingredients tableside.
Inspired by chats with Japanese bartenders, workshops, and documentary viewings, Splendorini aims for perfection in three aspects: flavor profile, execution, and presentation. But while his drinks spotlight subtle flavors, he's had to make the ceremony aspect approachable by simplifying and shortening it. "We adapt Japanese products and Japanese drinking culture for all-American palates," Splendorini says. "It's elaborate, with a lot of work in the execution, but it's going to be fast." To start, Splendorini has brought in an impressive range of 14 Japanese whiskys, which he's fairly certain is the largest selection available outside of Japan. A series of whisky flights will allow customers to explore all the gems on the back bar. "I really want to let people understand what they're drinking," he says. "Not everyone knows about Japanese whisky, and for most, Pabu is their first time trying it."
Pabu's dramatic bar and lounge is nearly as large as its dining room.
Japanese whisky's famously clean and pure profile also provides the core inspiration for Splendorini's cocktails, which are divided into three categories: whisky ceremony, whisky cocktails, and signature cocktails. The standout of the three is Splendorini's inventive and pleasantly mind-bending play on the whisky ceremony, which, depending on the whisky, ranges from an accessible $16 to an upscale $225. In the Japanese tradition, bartenders perform a whisky ceremony known as piercing. They pair a whisky with a spice or fruit and, using tongs, carefully rim the outside of the glass. The intent is for drinkers to smell the pairing as they imbibe. Splendorini's process also pairs whisky with ingredients, but he chooses to instead torch the fruit or spice, placing the whisky glass upside down on top of it to absorb the aroma. The whisky is poured into the glass, with the essence imbued in each sip, while the bite is served alongside as a snack. His pairing of the clean, ocean-like Hibiki 12 with fresh cacao-infused strawberry is precise, yet invigorating to the senses. Other pairings come with equally creative torched bites, like oloroso sherry-infused coconut and pineapple resin-soaked banana.
Splendorini also demonstrates a fine-tuned palate with his take on whisky cocktails ($13-$15). Of note is his twist on the highball, the tall whisky soda that's a Japanese favorite. Splendorini's highballs incorporate housemade sodas (the current flavors are strawberry, shiso, and yuzu) with 12-year Hibiki, served over crushed ice. Though bizarre at first glance, Splendorini's chosen combinations are a tantalizing introduction to Japanese whisky, highlighting new and different elements of the spirit. His other whisky cocktails include the Little Green Bag, which updates the classic Ramos gin fizz with Japanese ingredients. Splendorini whips up the drink in a foam canister, blending floral Hakushu 12-year whisky, coconut milk, yuzu, velvet falernum, lemon juice, and egg white. Served in a tall champagne glass, it tastes like drinking creamy, flower-flavored clouds.
Finally, there are Splendorini's seven signature cocktails (all $13), which either incorporate non-whisky Japanese spirits (like shochu and sake) or are based around Western spirits with Japanese ingredients (like wasabi, yuzu, shiso, and ginger) as supporting players. There's still an element of ceremony and performance in drinks like the Fuzzy, made with clarified Campari. It's carbonated in an ionizer, then poured over an ice column with Japanese edible flowers frozen inside. Splendorini's Summer cocktail pairs particularly well with food, combining sake, pickled strawberry juice, togarashi, and fresh lemon juice over a large ice cube.
Ice is famously important in the upper echelons of Japanese cocktail culture, and Splendorini makes five different types of ice, customized for each drink. "What we're trying to do is make something that is going to be hard for anyone else to recreate," he says. "But it's definitely approachable, with an approachable cost." Like any ambitious bar manager in the city, Splendorini seeks to be the best. He hopes to grow the program alongside Pabu, potentially even bringing over the incredibly difficult, much-revered Japanese hard shake. In the meantime, it's a transporting trip to Tokyo, with a hint of American flair.
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