The Japanese delights at the Four Seasons’ new spot soar, but the prices are astronomical
Published: June 20, 2012
725 Aliceanna St.,  223-1460, michaelmina.net/restaurants/locations/pabu.php
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At Pabu, a sprinkle of miniature meringues, kiss-shaped and curled like tiny nipples, gives a delicate crunch to a sesame ice cream sundae ($7.88). Japanese whiskey-based cocktails boast a single sphere of ice as round and solid as a billiard ball, and coffeepots wear their own carafe-tight zip jackets to stay warm. And a so-called “happy spoon” ($5.88) yields pleasure, if not outright delight, as an oyster swaddled in jewel-toned roes and a slick of ponzu crème fraiche slides from the bowl of a spoon, over your tongue, and down your throat with no trouble at all.
It’s these small, sensual pleasures—the cooling of the cocktail with minimal dilution, the seamless texture of the happy spoon—that create the appeal of the latest restaurant to open in the Four Seasons. As one diner commented over a recent weekday evening meal, Pabu is like Bach’s exquisite Little Fugue in G minor: It offers a lot of details in very small packages.
And details are definitely the name of the game in this latest venture of Michael Mina, the creative presence behind the Four Seasons’ Wit and Wisdom who collaborates here with Ken Tominaga, owner and chef of Hana, a sushi restaurant in Sonoma County, Calif. Pabu (the Japanese word for “pub”) seeks to replicate the Japanese Izakaya style—roughly a drinkery that also serves food—but the effect here is decidedly modern and extremely polished. (It is also very loud as you try to make yourself heard over the multi-decade soundtrack of Bowie and Sinatra [Nancy], Fitz and the Tantrums, and Stereo MCs). The space is appropriately minimalist: Blond wood benches punctuated with individual leather cushions line the wall opposite the open kitchen and sushi bar, and ceiling-grazing shelves of ceramic vessels create distinct dining areas. At one point during dinner, the lights lower without warning and the window blinds rise without as much as a squeak, revealing harbor views and the pastels of a fading sunset.
Service is equally seamless. Servers dressed in black and shod in athletic shoes cast careful eyes over diners’ shoulders, silently clearing plates or refilling water glasses as they glide by tables. They’re also adept, if slightly conservative, when making menu recommendations, and can negotiate Pabu’s cocktail and sake menu with ease, no small feat for a restaurant that serves a dozen sakes by the glass and more by the bottle (the restaurant also has the only master sake sommelier in Baltimore in Tiffany Dawn Soto).
But a word of warning before you order. As one might expect, all of this comes at a price. And when the prices for the Classic Lolita cocktail made with 12-year-old Hakashu whiskey and a variety of bitters ($15), the individual nigiri created from fish flown in from Japan’s Tsukiji Market in Tokyo ($4-$9 per piece depending on selection and served at the end of the meal), and the robata—grilled skewers of nearly every part a chicken has (including some you didn’t know existed)—are added up, a night out at Pabu can be a tremendously expensive night indeed.
It is also very satisfying —to a point. The pale squares of beef tendon ($6) from the robata portion of the menu have a silky texture rather than a chewy one, and Papa Weaver Farm pork belly ($6) is reliably smoky-sweet with just the right amount of fat. Little nubs of eringi mushrooms ($7) arrive on a single skewer looking a bit like pencil erasers, but get a boost from grilled garlic and a little red miso. Diners can discuss among themselves just which part of the chicken—the tail, the forearm, the shoulder blade, the sake-cured heart—is best, but it’s hard to be disappointed by the chicken oyster or kinkan ($6). That said, although the servers encourage the sharing of these (and all) dishes, even the most lionhearted might blanch at apportioning one small slice of belly or mushroom or tendon to each member of a party of four.
Easier to share are several of the cold plates: an izakaya appetizer tasting plate ($9) of starchy, sliced lotus root, a verdant mound of goma-ae’, sautéed spinach with sesame, and a scoop of jako, salty, miniscule baby minnows nestled in a lettuce leaf (another warning: You will inevitably find minnows scattered over your table throughout the rest of your meal); or the small bowl of farm salad greens ($9) tossed with Asian pear and ginger.
Miso-broiled black cod ($14), from the Rice, Noodles, and Soups portion of the menu, is none of the three (the section also offers Michael’s Chicken Noodle ramen, chilled soba noodles, and katsudon). It is, however, one of the loveliest dishes of the evening. The mild, buttery black cod is beautifully sweet and soft, and served with steamed rice and shredded oshinko (radish) closer to an entree than anything else on the menu.
I wasn’t bowled over by pastry chef Chris Ford’s desserts when I visited Wit and Wisdom earlier this year (my bad), but I love what he’s doing at Pabu. The surprisingly substantial desserts include the aforementioned sundae, a fascinating flavor and textural composition of sesame ice cream, caramel crumble, squishy black tapioca pearls, and those petite meringues (there’s also a version with pineapple green tea ice cream with hibiscus, plum, strawberry, and honey elements). Ford’s dessert omakase ($9.88)—house-made mochi and green tea sorbet are among the standouts—is another exquisite combination of flavors presented thoughtfully.
At the risk of sounding pedestrian, I want to repeat that while Pabu has a hip and casual vibe, the bill at the end of a meal here is anything but. And while I enjoyed much of what I ate and will argue quality over quantity every time, it’s also hard to remember the last time I spent well over $200 for a meal for four and left feeling hungry. Pabu is hands-down a stylish and unparalleled addition to the Baltimore dining scene. Whether it can sustain an audience in a city whose pockets don’t always run deep is the question.
Pabu is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
All parts of the chicken
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