Bar Review: A New Kind of Japanese-Style Bar

At Katana Kitten, Masa Urushido has done away with the quiet formality of the Japanese-style cocktail bar.

The prawns would have been enough, honestly. Massive and meaty, they’d been marinated in shrimp paste overnight and then seared on a hot griddle. But shortly after they hit the bar, Masahiro Urushido, the owner of Katana Kitten, the nine-month old, Japanese-influenced cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, leaned over and asked if I’d be interested in an “umami situation.”

I wasn’t altogether sure what he meant, but it’s difficult to mistrust Urushido’s mile-wide grin. He proceeded to remove the heads from the prawns and placed them in a vise of sorts, extracting the savory juice. He then mixed it with sake and salted lemon and presented it as a shot, which was soon joined by an additional glass of shochu. A couple minutes later, the emptied prawn skulls arrived in crispy, salted, deep-fried form, as a third course.

Offered at another cocktail bar, this exhibition might have been framed with all possible pomp. But at Katana Kitten, it felt like a gesture between friends. That feeling of fun-loving, but never self-serious, service suffuses every iota of what Katana does, and can almost certainly be attributed to Urushido. Known throughout the drinks industry simply as “Masa,” his is the very face of hospitality, one adorned with a thick, un-ironic mustache and pronounced smile lines.

It is no surprise then that after leaving his long-time post as head bartender at Saxon & Parole, Urushido—who was born in a small town in the Nagano prefecture in Japan, and has been working in restaurants and bars since he was a teenager—opened one of the most welcoming cocktail bars in the city. (His co-owners are Greg Boehm and James Tune, both of Boilermaker in the East Village.) The name of the bar itself telegraphs Urushido’s earnest/casual intentions—“katana” being a name for a samurai sword and “kitten” a reference to a very different Japanese tradition: Hello Kitty. It’s a silly name that immediately disarms any nervous patron new to the Japanese bar aesthetic. “Katana Kitten is everyone’s everyday bar,” explains Urushido.

The bar’s menu is a model of straightforward simplicity, divided between highballs, cocktails and boilermakers—five of each. (There are also wines by the glass, sake and beer.) Upon each drink are lavished personal touches that take them beyond the ordinary. The Shiso Gin & Tonic, for instance, is made with intensely lime-bright homemade “shiso-quinine syrup,” which is on draft. When in season, from June to October, the drink rests in the cooling shade of an enormous shiso leaf from Urushido’s Brooklyn garden. A different plucking from that same garden, red shiso, goes into the Amaretto Sour, alongside a slightly saline Japanese plum shrub. Like Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s famous version of the drink, the amaretto here is bumped up in power and flavor by the addition of rye whiskey. This Japanese-inflected version, sprinkled with yukari—salted and sundried red shiso leaves, generally used as seasoning for rice—is a further improvement on the once-lowly cocktail.

That sour is a good example of what Katana does well, proffering flavorful and charmingly inventive eastern spins on western drinks without undue ostentation. Cool Runnings, Urushido’s Japanese spin on a Mai Tai, is another. It reads like adult breakfast cereal: potato shochu, arrack, coconut orgeat, puffed rice, banana, cocoa nibs and lemon. Those ingredients deliver delicate notes of fruit, nuts, sweet and funk, a complex but yet somehow quiet riot of flavor. The rosy dust sitting on the surface is dehydrated Okinawan purple sweet potato.

These drinks, paired with Urushido’s buoyant approach to hospitality, illustrate the importance of Katana in the still-young Japanese bar movement in the U.S. Just as many of the early craft cocktail bars sometimes over-emphasized the formal aspects of mixology, Japanese-style bars have taken some time extracting themselves from their model, with early examples feeling a bit textbook and chilly in their adherence to tradition. But, like Kenta Goto of Bar Goto before him, Urushido spent enough years working New York bars to absorb the best parts of each country’s school of bartending, forging a hybrid style that is only now becoming recognizable.

Inside Katana Kitten

Two of the breakout hits from Katana’s opening menu—one more Kitten, the other more Katana—also showcase an east-west amalgam. The more playful of the two is the Melon-Lime Soda, one of the better Midori-revival drinks that have popped up in cocktail bars over the last few years. It combines Absolut Lime vodka, Midori, the Japanese sudachi lime, matcha and lime leaf. Piquant, tangy and refreshing, it drinks like a kicky, complex Mountain Dew. More formal is the Hinoki Martini, whose harmonious mix of vodka, gin, sherry and sake can smooth the edges off anyone’s day. The cocktail enjoys one of the most visually elegant packagings in the city: a glass cone resting in a masu box filled with crushed ice. A misting of Colorado cypress essence (subbing for the hinoki cypress tree, native to Japan) completes the experience.

The sneaky and subtle care that Katana brings to everything extends to the food. The lush, silky-smooth deviled eggs are fortified by Japanese mustard, Kewpie mayonnaise and miso, and topped with salmon roe. The nori fries are sprinkled with aonori and sea salt; get them with Japanese curry sauce for a delicious eastern version of “wets.” The egg salad “sando,” made again with Kewpie mayo and thick, soft, crustless slices of daiichi bread, is the sandwich equivalent of a deeply comfortable sofa. Finally, the teriyaki burger, topped with much-depended-upon Kewpie, pickled pineapple, shiso and “Masa special sauce” served on a potato bun, is a stand-out bar burger in a city that already has an embarrassment of stand-out bar burgers.

Everything you might need to eat and drink these things—chopsticks, napkin-wrapped silver, small trays made of compressed palm leaf, ice-cold mugs—is seen to at Katana, another aspect of its quiet attentiveness. Every time I looked down at the bar, it seemed some new helpful or needed item had been slipped in. I was lucky enough a couple times to have Masa do the attending; sincere graciousness and joy of service are hard to come by, and there’s nothing quite like being served by him. Thankfully, he’s one of those rare cocktail bar owners who is actually behind his bar fairly often. But his good cheer seems to have been adopted by the rest of the staff, who have successfully disseminated it to the clientele. The crowd bubbled with contentment under a canopy of small white lights during my recent visits.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years in the bartending community about a return to hospitality after years of hard-line patron schooling on the art of the cocktail. Sometimes, this conversation has felt like a false either-or proposition, as if careful cocktails and generous service couldn’t exist in the same space. Katana and Urushido show how both can be done well simultaneously, and in two cultural languages to boot. The wonder lies in how effortless it all seems.

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