An inspired izakaya on the Inner Harbor
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, December 16, 2012
Thoughtfulness is as free-flowing as sake at Pabu.
Sure, the cool towels you receive as you settle into the Japanese tavern in the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore are a courtesy extended by a number of Japanese restaurants. But the good vibes run right through the night. Order coffee, and the pot arrives in a zippered leather wrap to keep it warm. Use the valet service, and your car is purring out front when you exit. Come to think of it, when’s the last time the guy who parked your wheels introduced himself, or inquired about your dinner? (Thanks, Andrew!)
Pabu is the latest dining concept to go into the gleaming luxury hotel overlooking the Inner Harbor. As with its sibling, Wit & Wisdom, Pabu is the brainchild of the San Francisco-based Michael Mina Group, whose brand-name chef helped dream up a casual Asian concept for the hotel. Pabu takes its inspiration from Japanese izakayas, or pubs, hence its name and an emphasis on drinks and small plates, including skewered grilled meats, or robata.
It might take a few dishes to appreciate the concept. Pabu’s chicken wings are no better than standard issue, and the kitchen’s vegetable tempura includes a few undercooked elements that pick a fight with your teeth. Similarly, “Michael’s chicken noodle” ramen, with its dull broth and dry meat, will not explain why the country has flipped for ramen.
Hawaiian-inspired poke, or ahi tuna salad, mutes conversation, on the other hand. Spiked with fresh ginger and Srichacha, the lushness of the minced fish still shines through. Served as a pink cake, the tartare is framed with fried wonton sails for scooping. Shishito peppers, another starter, are as ever-present as tattoos on chefs these days; I have yet to meet a server who doesn’t warn you that eating the finger-length Japanese chili peppers is a game of Russian roulette, where every third or fourth one might be explosively hot. The nosh at Pabu is dusted with dried shaved bonito and an unusual price: $4.88. Dishes ending in 88, explains a server, are among the favorites of executive chef Jonah Kim, a veteran of the esteemed Uchi in Austin.
I cannot fathom why the digits don't apply to Kim's country ribs. I never go to Pabu that I don't order the appetizer, sweet-hot charred pork that takes your tongue on a joy ride and leaves your fingers stained red (and a goofy smile on your face). Served crisscrossed on their plate, skewered chicken meatballs look like savory lollipops. Flash-fried before hitting the grill, they are crisp outside, tender inside, and seasoned with white pepper and minced onion to elevate their flavor.
Save perhaps for the crab cake (set off with pork belly and a fried egg) on the menu, little about Pabu suggests you’re eating in Charm City. The design sweeps you far, far away, to a place where shelves of glazed sake casks serve as see-through walls, bamboo warms up much of the ceiling, and custom-made pottery plates grace knotty pine tables. Loud music wafting from the bar interrupts the otherwise serene feel.
The staff at Pabu is trained to speak knowingly about the menu and translate ingredients you might not recognize. Falernum, for the uninitiated, is a sweetly-spiced syrup with origins in the Caribbean. Along with Lillet blanc, sake and yuzu, falernum inhabits the citrusy Super X cocktail, priced at $10.88.
An informed crew doesn’t equal a discreet one, however. Some attendants don’t know when to stop cleaning crumbs from the table, filling water glasses to the very brim or interrupting to ask the dreaded, “Are you enjoying everything?” Dial back, kids. And do not, I repeat, do not, tell me that two of your favorite dishes are also the most expensive items on the menu, even if that’s true. The practice smacks of up-selling.
The broad and busy sushi counter in the back is your cue to incorporate raw fish or seafood rolls into the evening. I appreciate the small, soft pads of rice that support the carefully carved fish: yellowtail if I’m slumming it, fatty tuna (toro) if it’s payday, or shad gizzard if only because it’s not a topping you see often. Creamy sea urchin, or uni, speaks to sea-freshness, too. More than half the fish is flown in from the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
There are only a handful of large plates, among them miso-marinated black cod that falls away at the touch of your tines, and comes with bok choy, rice and a tiny yellow nest of radish that is perfect punctuation for the rich fish. It’s a pleasant composition. But my inclination at Pabu, and the thrust of the place, is the small plates.
About that sake. Pabu not only pours more than 100 kinds, the restaurant comes with a dedicated curator, Tiffany Dawn Soto. Officially the hotel’s beverage manager, she got her start as a wine instructor at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, where a sizable number of her students were Japanese and wanted to know more about sake than she could deliver. Soto went on to study the subject in Japan and is certified as a master sake educator. A consultation with the pro might lead to something special, like the unpasteurized Masumi Arabashiri, a subtly floral, fruity sake so delicate it is kept upstairs in dark storage.
Dessert is not something Asian restaurants tend to invest much time in, and true to form, there are only two options for the last course at Pabu. Spring for the sampler, a slender barge of multiple little bites that start at one end with a dab of chestnut puree and a fried soba noodle and continue with yuzu-sweetened sponge cake and brown sugar custard with apple gelee.
The progression of flavors is like eating a good novel, and I’m not surprised when I see its price: $10.88.