Do you like your birthdays? I love my own birthdays and everyone else’s, and even though now that I hit my 30s I have started to find the thought of aging a bit freaky daunting, I fight the idea by living the present the best I can and know how. That includes celebrating special moments with people I love. J is not big on planning celebrations, so ever since we have been together I eagerly took on that responsibility and make sure we do something memorable on our jubilees. Well, this weekend my man became one year wiser and it was a perfect excuse to pack our small suitcases and arrange a little weekend staycation in Tokyo. Gosh, what a great idea it was! It totally did feel like we were on a mini-vacation even though we were within 45-minute train ride from our own home. We spent a few hours relaxing in our comfortable room at Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku and after getting all dolled up and handsome headed out for our pre-dinner birthday drinks. Making the choice for the right bar was easy, I’ve been dying to visit Bar Gen Yamamoto and taste his highly praised one-of-a-kind cocktails for a while now. Thankfully, J approved the idea and at 5 pm sharp we arrived at a tiny place in the back alley of Azabu-juban. As soon as you step inside you understand that this is not a place to get drunk and while your time away as you listen to the rhythmic beats and sip your colorful cocktails. Don’t expect the glitz and pizazz of Park Hyatt’s New York Bar, or the loud chatter of Golden Gai. Instead, this is a place to ponder each meticulously prepared drink in a serene, clean and uncluttered ambiance so typical of traditional Japanese aesthetic. A tiny space is filled with huge 500-year-old L-shaped wooden counter that sits only eight, while uneven walls painted off-white are kept bare to offer nothing but peaceful simplicity and a little bit of well-honed Zen. I was overjoyed to find that we were the first ones to arrive and had the entire place to ourselves. Gen Yamamoto, in his pristine white jacket, greeted us behind the counter and provided his undivided attention. There is not much thought involved in deciding what to order. You have a choice of four or six cocktails, the rest is up to Yamamoto-san and his daily inspiration. You can also request modifications or add-ons in the end.
We intently started observing Yamamoto-san’s every move as he first chose the appropriate delicate hand-blown glasses, then placed a bottle of featured liquor in front of us and continued on to transform the fruit into a base of a cocktail. What sets Gen Yamamoto’s cocktails apart?
The young mixologist made his name in New York City managing a bar at the high-end Japanese restaurant Brushstroke, where he prepared his concoctions using fresh produce found at farmers’ markets. He remains true to his philosophy in his own bar too and highlights locally sourced fruits and herbs of the season in each drink. Thus, the cocktails are constantly changing with the seasons and availability of ingredients.
He didn’t share the fancy names of the drinks, instead he talked about the produce he used because that’s where his inspiration stems from, “Always.”, he pointed out.
While the lights in the room are dim, the inner edge of the counter is well illuminated to make sure the spot where cocktail glasses rest are in the center of attention. The presentation is simple and sophisticated, to match the rest of the experience. First cocktail was prepared using sweet plum and very rich sake. Being keen on sweet drinks I loved the freshness and natural sweetness that came from the plum. Aroma from the fresh fruit was simply unforgettable and I ended up buying fresh plums in the local market the next day just to be able to taste that incredible flavor yet again. Second cocktail was mixed with gin from Spain and ume juice. It was frizzy and lively with a pleasant hint of tartness from the Japanese plum. The third “course” was an eye-opening cocktail of peach and sparkling sake, spiked with a touch of wasabi which added different dimension to the drink and elevated the flavor profile to a whole new level. Fourth cocktail surprised our tastebuds with its tart flavors coming from a passion fruit from Amami island (next to Okinawa), and a light whiskey with a trace of smokiness, finished with a sprig of Hebesu citrus. Fifth drink featured sweet potato spirit from a local distillery and pineapple from Okinawa. The cocktail was presented in the form of shaved ice and was topped with green bell-pepper which sounded a bit weird in the beginning, but made perfect sense once the entire combination touched the palate. It was packed with tropical flavors while the spirit added sweetness and body to the “drink”. For his last cocktail Yamamoto-san prepared more savory drink using milk, edamame and classic sake adding Hebesu citrus for a touch of acidity. The drink was smooth, but it was not our favorite of the night. One would think after six cocktails we’d leave the bar wasted, but somehow we hardly felt we consumed any alcohol. As you can see it’s not just the ambiance that dictates you not to get drunk, but also the size of drinks which are served in a dainty glasses size of an espresso shot. I am no expert in cocktails, but I felt the key here was to have alcohol elevate and bring out best in the local produce, not vice versa. And if I am right, then Yamamoto-san excels in what he does.
Looking forward to our dinner later that night we left with our spirits high, although a tad sad we didn’t have time to linger a bit longer and maybe ask Yamamoto-san to improvise and excite our tastebuds with another surprise drink. But then, there is always next time…
Do you like celebrating birthdays? What is the most amazing cocktail you have ever had?
Bar Gen Yamamoto | 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo | Tel: 03 6434 0652