Inside Kenta Goto’s Reinvention of the Japanese Cocktail Bar

In his "Bar Tripping" column, photographer Daniel Krieger travels the world to capture its most photogenic bars. This week, he steps inside New York's Bar Goto—Kenta Goto's new oasis of subtle, Japanese-style drinks and small plates, with a deeply personal history.

Kenta Goto, longtime head bartender at New York City's Pegu Club, has struck out on his own with an aptly named new project called Bar Goto, located on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Signature house cocktail the Sakura Martini blends gin, sake, maraschino liqueur and a cherry blossom—the national flower of Goto's native Japan. [Recipe]

A bouncer keeps watch outside the door (left). Goto communicating with the kitchen during service (right).

Artfully crafted cedar cups are commonly used in Japanese dining as a vessel for sake. Here it's used to house Goto's Improved Shochu Cocktail. [Recipe]

According to Goto, okonomiyaki "is a perfect drinking food." The food menu at Bar Goto offers five varieties, including one with chicken and pork belly filling, and a vegetarian option with shiitake and shimeji mushrooms.

A cousin of the Tom Collins, the Yuzu-Calpico Fizz, at left, combines gin, yuzu preserve, Calpico (a milky Japanese soda), lemon and soda water. [Recipe]

The early scene at Bar Goto on Friday night.

Meant to mimic the flavors of Korean hot pot, Goto infuses miso, red chili essence and shitake-infused vodka in his Umami Mary. [Recipe]

A 100-year-old kimono—which belonged to Goto’s mother—acts both as room-straddling tableau and tribute.

The fair-weather, gin-based Watermelon-Cucumber Cooler is served with a special housemade wasabi salt. [Recipe]

Miso chicken wings sprinkled with roasted black sesame seeds and scallions and glazed in miso-Buffalo hot sauce.

Award-winning bartender and Tokyo transplant Kenta Goto sited his first solo venture less than a mile east of his former office, the legendary New York City cocktail bar Pegu Club. But to conceive the spirit of the eponymous Bar Goto—tucked down a street he says is “relatively quiet” for Manhattan’s nouveau nexus of nightlife the Lower East Side—he reached a few thousand miles farther.

The sophisticated, 40-person space gracefully marries Goto’s Japanese upbringing and teenage stint at his mother’s Tokyo-area restaurant, Ginnan-Tei, with his impeccable cocktail pedigree, having spent seven years at the ultra-swanky, Audrey Saunders–owned drinking den. Even as it joins a short and venerable list of New York bars steeped in Japanese custom, most notable among them the unmarked East Village speakeasy Angel’s Share, Goto’s bar is already shaping up to be a far more personal expression.

The highly snackable food menu, by Chef Kiyo Shinoki, goes long in okonomiyaki, an omelette-like grilled pancake of egg, cabbage and other savory goodies, all drizzled in tangy sauces. Also a specialty of Ginnan-Tei, okonomiyaki is celebrated by the street-food obsessed and the drunkenly famished alike.

“I wanted to showcase okonomiyaki at the bar for two reasons,” Goto says. “The first is to honor my mother. The second is simply because okonomiyaki is a perfect drinking food. … [It’s] a cross between tacos, pizza and frittata, so I find that it’s easy for anyone in New York to try.”

Bar Goto’s original cocktails feature a number of Japanese spirits and ingredients, from shochu to the milky soft drink Calpico, but bear Goto’s personal marks, too. Perhaps from having grown up eating the salty, tangy Japanese staple umeboshi, Goto reveals a taste for plum via a duo of inventive drinks: the Topaz Glow and the Plum Sazerac. The former blends cherry brandy, plum wine and bitter Campari; the latter reinterprets the New Orleans original with slivovitz—the chest-hair-growing Balkan plum brandy—bourbon and absinthe.

In the Sakura Martini—a riff on the classic build with cherry liqueur and sake—the petals of a shut sakura flower, imported from Japan, elegantly unfurl when dropped in the glass. The quietly beautiful gesture is a mark of the delicate touch Goto cultivated as Pegu Club’s head bartender. In their subtlety and economy of presentation, these cocktails represent a refreshing divergence from the blustery, exaggerated style that seems to have taken hold in NYC. And the nicety of the drinks goes hand-in-hand with the Far Eastern-inspired service; omotenashi, Goto says, is his bar’s guiding principle—placing it in the tradition of Japan’s most serious cocktail haunts.

“This essentially means anticipating your customer’s needs,” he explains, “and meeting them in a smooth and subtle way to enhance the guest experience.” In both temperament and taste, Bar Goto resonates on a unique frequency, one telling a jaded class of drinkers to quiet down and listen closely.

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