Saturday, June 23, 2012

Bar High Five in Ginza, Tokyo

This is a review that almost did not get written. I've been fretting about it for a couple days. Why? Well, I'm afraid of not doing it justice. The pictures I had taken that evening came out lousy, and I wasn't diligent enough to write down my usual series of notes. Furthermore, everything we had here was a product of years of training and scientific trial and error, so much so that I don't think I can accurately convey the experience. But to not write about it, to not tell whoever might be interested would be a worse injustice. If you've heard of Bar High Five in Ginza (バー ハイ・ファイブ), you have to go. If you haven't heard about it, consider yourself now aware.
Location: Bar High Five
This little bar, like many of the outstanding, classic cocktail bars in Tokyo, is located on an upper floor down a small street in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ginza. You'll have to keep an eye out for the sign that's located above eye level, along with a series of other signs of businesses located in the same building. When we first found Bar High Five's building, there were a number of business men being met by two uber polite young ladies dressed up as playboy bunnies by the elevator on the ground floor. This same building houses a number of colorful businesses, including whatever club the gentlemen were headed to, and a rather loud karaoke bar, also located on the fourth floor, which is apparently the bane of the owner's existence.
Bar High Five
On locating the entrance to the small establishment, you'll notice first the long bar with maybe eight or so seats for patrons. There are a couple tables at the back. Behind the bar is the huge expected assortment of liquors, bitters, glasses, and other tools. And then there was Hidetsugu Ueno, owner of Bar High Five.
Hidetsugu Ueno at Bar High Five
There are bartenders, then there are great bartenders, then there are your local bartenders, and then there are artists. Hidetsugu Ueno is an artist. When we had first entered, it was a slow night, and a bit early, so he had a bit of time to talk to us. You were immediately struck by how proud he was of his bar, and how hard he has worked in order to get this little space. He liked this little space, despite the next door Karaoke space, because it is not on the first floor, and therefore people who are seeking these cocktails are not likely to be those drunkenly wandering off of the streets. This man told us about how when the earthquake struck, he had sent his apprentice home to her family, as she had been shaking from fear after it happened. The bottles struck the floor, and there were aftershocks coming days after. He stayed in his bar. He slept there for days. For the first day he did not clean, but the following days he reordered all of his ingredients, and had been set to open. He explained how as patrons came in to check on his bar, and check on him, he had warned them that they were welcome to stay, but that he was concerned for their safety. All this time, he stayed, sleeping at his bar.
With all the stories and the pride that he took in his bar, you also got the sense in his body language and tone that he was a bit...well... cocky. After speaking to so many Japanese on this trip, one somewhat expected that there would be an overtone of humility in their voice each time. Not here, however. This man, this diva of a bartender, kind of knew that he deserved what he had, he had earned it, and that he was the best of the best. He explained throughout preparing drinks about how long it takes to develop a perfection of the classic cocktail, even noting that his awesome apprentice had been studying under him for five years. The woman never made a drink while we were there. She tended to the special ham that they prepare in the style of Iberian ham, and also made sure to bring water to guests. She made the delicate ice balls and cubed ice. She was an expert in pouring sherry, and had been experimenting in infusing different liquors with other ingredients, such as fine English tea. But she never prepared a drink while we were there. We were given the impression immediately that he took great pride in her, but this was his bar, and he was the star of Bar High Five.
The Spring Feeling
And he was. The drinks were made with a panache that I've never seen before. I had been a great skeptic of the a) actual existence of the Japanese hard shake b) whether it makes a difference to the enjoyment of a great cocktail. But then he started making the Bigger Half a beverage known as the Spring Feeling. The ingredients, while exquisite, were straightforward and not complicated. He used V.E.P. Chartreuse, aged as is the custom, and then added lime juice, and gin. The man then used different pieces of very cold ice, and a three piece shaker, typically used by bartenders in Japan. While at his former bar, Star Bar, they had been fond of using a two step Japanese hard shake, where the pull back of the shake is a bit faster than the push. But at his very own bar, the master utilized a three step hard shake. The shaker was moved in three fluid motions, growing faster as he repeated each series of three, and then ending in a very fast abrupt motion forward. He poured the Spring Feeling into a classic cocktail glass (think martini glass), and there were visible tiny shards of ice floating near the top. This dry, tart cocktail was enjoyable, and enhanced by the existence of those tiny shards of ice, melting in ones mouth and emphasizing all of the harmonious flavor notes of the drink. The hard shake has been confirmed as real, and indeed adding to a cocktail's enjoyment.
Me, being the moron that I am, did not order a cocktail that used the same technique. This is not to say that my drink wasn't delicious. If not the best Negroni I've ever had, it definitely comes in a tie for the best. This drink is my favorite little night cap. It's dry, and alcohol forward when produced by my favorite bartender back home. This was slightly different. The traditional ingredients of gin, vermouth, and campari bitters came together to produce one of the smoothest drinks I've had in years. It also came complete with another lesson in technique. Hidetsugu Ueno, in a last movement before presenting the beverage, twisted a lemon peel, and made two quick hand motions forward, splashing the spritz from the twist of lemon into the air to fall perfectly on the rim and onto the top of the drink. It smelled delightfully of lemon with the first few sips, trickling smoothly in a long line down my throat.
We were soon venturing outside of our favorites zone, asking the bartender what drinks that he liked to make. Sometimes I think that this is a question that is almost polite to ask a bartender. Kind of like, "Let's give you a break. You've really made two awesome things so far... what's an easy one for you?" This isn't to say that we didn't expect something awesome for him, because this same question often produces something that a bartender excels at naturally or thinks of as his signature cocktail. But the response from Hidetsugu was, "I really don't like that question." He explained that it's not about what he likes to make, it's about the cocktail, and finding ways to make a better classic cocktail. Furthermore, it's about the customer. What does the customer like? What does the customer want?
Ingredients for the Japanese Garden
With a genuine appreciation for his response, I asked what Japanese people like to drink, and what he has created most recently that embodies this idea of a great cocktail. He was happy to produce a short menu of beverages that he had made at the most recent Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. One of them was called "The Japanese Garden," featuring Hakushu, Midori, and Hermes Green Tea Liquor. His apprentice quickly went to sculpting a perfectly round, large ice ball for my beverage, as he precisely measured the ingredients, and combined them in a tall glass, specially used for mixing ingredients for cocktails that use these types of spirits (also used typically when making an Old Fashioned). After carefully stirring and adding the ice ball, I had a wonderful cocktail. It was both sweet and dry, and slightly bitter from the use of the Hakushu whiskey and even a little grassy from the addition of the green tea liquor.
Japanese Garden - Also note
the ham in
upper lefthand corner
You'll also notice on the right hand corner of the photo to the right that we took the opportunity to order a plate of the ham that they prepare at Bar High Five. The ham, watched over carefully by the apprentice was wonderful. The two explained that they first select the pig that will be used for the ham, and later prepare by salting within a bag, and then turning and resalting according to their proven recipe. It was both sweet and salty, in the style of Spanish hams, but with a distinct earthy flavor attributed to the terroir in which the pork was raised. If you're peckish when visiting this bar, make sure to order the ham that the skilled woman has prepared.
English Tea Cocktail
Moving on, the Bigger Half was also looking for something special to order, but unsure in which direction to go. After a few questions to the bartenders, he decided on one of the drinks that the apprentice helps to prepare. (I must apologize. I keep referring to her as the apprentice, because I was not smart enough to ask her name. In my opinion her skills far exceeded about 98% of bartenders I've known in the States.) This woman is a great fan of fine British black teas. She has taken to experimenting with infusions of clean vodka with the black tea, and has had tremendous success. This beverage used her tea infused vodka, white vermouth, and a tea liquor from Paris. It tasted subtly of alcohol, with the flavor of strong, black tea quite pronounced. This was another delicious cocktail.
Singapore Sling -
made with fresh
And so after nursing our ham a bit, and trying to decide on two final beverages, it came up in conversation that another patron at this bar believed that Hidetsugu makes the best Singapore Sling in the world, better than that of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. Well, that's an "I dare you" if ever I heard one. We ordered up a Singapore Sling, and this crazy bastard perfectionist, pulls out an immersion blender and starts carving a pineapple. That's right. He's using fresh fruit and blending them TO ORDER. With the pineapple prepared, he added the traditional cherry liquor, gin, and Benedictine, and we had ourselves a frothy, beautiful, fresh fruit cocktail. Not that I spend much (or any) time in Singapore, but I can't imagine that the Singapore Sling there is anywhere near how delicious this was.
Bloody Mary - made
with fresh tomato
The final cocktail of the night? Well, a few other patrons had drifted into the bar at this point and we had a few moments to observe the cocktails that they were ordering. The kind gentleman to my left had ordered a Bloody Mary. Again with the immersion blender, a fresh, bright red tomato was pulled out from under the bar, and the craftsman began constructing a classic drink in the way that he felt it would have no flaws. A great tomato, sliced and blended, a little pepper vodka, and celery, I believe went into this drink. I must have been drooling as I watched the beverage that was prepared, with salt carefully pressed onto the rim of the glass, and the mixture being poured in. The man saw how impressed I was, and insisted that I take a sip of his drink. It was the cleanest, most subtle Bloody Mary I've ever tasted. There wasn't a heap of horseradish or any accoutrement beyond a simple lime wedge and the salt. Nothing overpowered the flavor of the sweet tomato and the clean vodka. It was amazing. And you better believe that we ordered our own and drank it with great gratitude for our final cocktail of the evening.
Dandanmen at Hashigo
Our bill paid, Hidetsugu asked what our other plans were for the evening. We were a bit tipsy and pretty much ready to call it a night. But like a great host, he said he thought maybe it was a good time for ramen. We asked where was the best place to go, and of course, after a little discussion and debate among the regulars at the bar, he had a great recommendation. So after heading out the door, and toward the elevator, the bartender gave us instructions on how to make the short walk to Hashigo for an order of the spicy dandanmen. Spicy ramen after a night of fantastic beverages is just what the doctor ordered to have a clean start to the morning. The broth was fatty and porky, with enough spice to wake us up for the walk to our hotel. The noodles had just the right amount of chew. Boy, what a great recommendation. 
So that was our night out in Ginza. Bar High Five, while hyped beyond all reasonableness, was impressive. The cocktails were not only perfect, but perfected to the present, as you know that Bar High Five are continuously honing their craft in producing the best classic cocktails. As opposed to Western fans of cocktails who want alcohol-forward beverages, these drinks were especially honed for a Japanese palate that wants all elements to be symbiotic in flavor and harmonious in texture. None of the drinks were harsh, but more everything seemed to fall into place. Both bartenders were amazing, interesting, and fantastic hosts. I look forward to my next evening in Tokyo where I can again enjoy such mastery of the art of cocktails.

バー ハイ・ファイブ

東京都中央区銀座7-2-14 第26ポールスタービル4F

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