Wednesday, May 30, 2012


A month or so ago, while perusing the Four Seasons Baltimore Web site for more information on Michael Mina's restaurant Wit & Wisdom, I noticed a blurb about an upcoming restaurant called Pabu. "Pabu," a Japanization of the word "pub," was going to be an izakaya-style restaurant, a joint venture between Mina and Sonoma County sushi master Ken Tominaga. I immediately got excited. While I love sushi and am happy that it's plentiful (particularly in Towson), I've long felt that Baltimore needed a Japanese restaurant that served kushiyaki (skewered things), chawanmushi (a custard dish), and the other interesting tidbits that are customarily consumed with sake.

An izakaya is basically a bar that serves food, but unlike the one we visited in New York, Sake Bar Hagi, Pabu is no mere watering hole. While the New York restaurant is dark and cramped, Pabu, located at the far end of Aliceanna Street across from the Marriott, occupies a space that is bright and spare, with lots of blonde wood and large windows. Shelves of large, nearly-identical, pottery sake vessels act as dividers that help break up the room. The bar is immediately in front of the entrance; across the room, its long shape is echoed by the sushi bar, behind which is an open kitchen.

We were seated off to one side, beyond the bar, and had a good view of the room. Because this was a media dinner*, we were presented with a special menu of the restaurant's choosing, an omakase. But before the food came, our eager and knowledgeable server suggested we try various things from the spirits menu, of which the restaurant is justifiably proud. Their sake collection is so vast (the largest in the area), it requires a special sake sommelier to keep things organized. The staff is all very well-trained, too, so feel comfortable allowing your server to make suggestions, as we did. We first tried two of the signature cocktails: the Japanese whisky-based Yakuza, with chamomile tea and yellow Chartreuse; and the Lemongrass Sour. Both were quite good, the Yakuza was surprisingly light, and easy to drink. Later, we were brought two different sakes to sample as well as a couple of special Japanese beers, one of which was made with rice, the other with sweet potato.

On to the food.

Jako - tiny minnows, ginger, shiso, goma
Seaweed salad - san baizu, creamy sesame
"Happy Spoons" - oyster, uni, ikura, ponzu creme fraiche
We started off with three "cold small plates," jako, seaweed salad, and the "happy spoon." Jako is a dish of tiny minnows - teeny, bitsy, weensy minnows even - that are cooked until they become dry and chewy, not unlike jerky, and flavored with sesame, shiso, and ginger. They're fairly salty and make a good bar snack-style accompaniment to beer or sake. The seaweed salad was a lot like the kind to which we're accustomed, with the addition of a creamy sesame dressing, and the "happy spoon" was something else entirely. A small oyster, salmon caviar, uni, and tobiko rested on a bit of creme fraiche flavored with ponzu. It was meant to be eaten in one bite, and just as I popped mine and began to chew, I was distracted by someone who appeared at our table to introduce herself, and in the confusion and haste to swallow, I forgot to taste what was in my mouth. My impression, however, was of fresh brininess, and I'd love to try this bite again.

Later in the meal, Chefs Michael Mina and Ken Tominaga came over to say hello. I was thrilled to meet them, and commended them on bringing the izakaya concept to Baltimore. At least, that's what I think I said; it may merely have been starstruck gibberish. :)

Maitake & seasonal vegetable tempura
Maryland crab okonomiyaki - bonito flake, benishoga, karashi mayo
Next came two warm plates, a selection of tempura vegetables that included eggplant, asparagus, lotus root, winter squash, and a maitake (hen-of-the-woods) mushroom. Honestly, I could eat tempura all day and particularly enjoyed the mushroom; maitakes are much like savory clusters of flower petals and make for particularly delicate tempura. The other plate was okonomiyaki, a savory cabbage pancake topped with an over-easy egg. This dish would make a delicious breakfast.

Tsukune, Muniniku, Hudson Valley foie gras
We then received three examples of kushiyaki, or skewered meats, that had been cooked on a charcoal-fueled robata grill. The tsukune, or chicken meatballs, were served with a jidori egg yolk that was meant to be whipped and used as a dip. The meatballs themselves were amazingly tender and juicy, with a crisp shell. So good. We also enjoyed wee lozenges of nori-wrapped foie gras dabbed with tangy umeboshi plum. The third skewer, of chicken breast, was merely ok. (There's only so much one can do with chicken breast.)

Miso with nameko mushroom, miso with fresh tofu, scallion, wakame
Our next course was soup, a classic miso with freshly made tofu and a rich, almost beefy, miso with mushrooms.

Nigiri - mebachi meguro, madai, kohada, katsuo
Sashimi - chutoro, aji, hotate
Ken's Roll - shrimp tempura,avocado, spicy tuna, pine nuts,
chili garlic furikake, eel sauce
Finally, we received selections of nigiri and sashimi, including chu-toro and a scallop that had been alive just seconds before serving. It was so fresh, it only needed a squeeze of lemon to bring out its natural sweetness. The maki was "Ken's Roll," a combination of shrimp tempura, avocado, spicy tuna, pine nuts, chili garlic furikake, and eel sauce. While the ingredients seemed pretty typical of American-style rolls, the result was far more sublime. The eel sauce (the real deal, btw, made with actual eel trimmings) was dribbled on the plate and not on the roll, so the diner could choose to have that extra bit of sweetness, or not, and the furikake had a real kick to it.

Finally, we had the best dessert imaginable: four dishes, two light and citrussy, two with a bit more heft. When combined, they offered the perfect combination of salty, tangy, creamy, and sweet. The salty came in the form of miso caramel under a bit of mochi-wrapped ice cream. A quenelle of green tea sorbet in a lemongrass broth with a brunoise of pineapple and melon was refreshing and so fragrant, I wanted to dab it behind my ears. The honey panna cotta topped with little pearls of yuzu gelee was both creamy and tangy, and the sweet white chocolates were filled with a whisky sauce that filled the mouth with sweetness.

Dessert omakase
Altogether an outstanding meal full of interesting textures and flavors. While not exactly the Saki Bar Hagi type of izakaya (dirt cheap, noisy, and crowded), we feel Pabu is a much needed - and delicious - addition to the Harbor East landscape.

725 Aliceanna St.
Baltimore, MD 21202 (410) 223-1460

Pabu on Urbanspoon

* We received free food and beverages during this visit, however, all opinions in this post are ours alone and not that of the restaurant.

Posted on