Japan: Part 2 – Ebisu, Tokyo
This is part 2 of a now 3 part series on our drinking adventures in Japan. You can find Part 1: Ginza here. We extended it out to a three-part series because we quickly realized that the epic shrine to American whiskey, Rogin's Tavern in Osaka and its owner Colonel Tatsumi-san (yes Kentucky commissioned him as a Colonel due to the incredible amount of whiskey he bought), needed its own expose.
In part 2, we explored very different Ebisu establishments: a more traditional sake bar and a set of "brother" hipster cocktail lounges (Bar Tram and Bar TRIAD) that frequently receive rave reviews from cocktail enthusiasts.
Fuon: Sake Establishment and Restaurant
This sake establishment was not from any travel guides (we couldn’t even find it on Google Maps) – and the few reviews of it on TripAdvisor are all in Japanese. Fuon was the recommendation and choice of an old college friend, who now resides in Japan, to catch up at. The owner knows his way around sake, and after asking you about characteristics you prefer (strong, sweet, sour, etc), will bring out four large bottles of sake from his prodigious stockpile that fit the flavor profile. From this paired down set, you sample and choose a sake to sip. We tried several new sakes we have never experienced – from the slightly carbonated and semi-dry “Kaze no Midori” to a funky mildly fruity bottle from Hokkaido.
Fuon is a sake centered bar, and at our friend's recommendation, we ordered a “moriawase” – a selection of inexpensive, delicious small plates that matched our sake selections. The food ranged from izakaya-like skewers to plates of sashimi. Ordering a la carte was more difficult as the menu is in hand written Japanese.
This is truly a uniquely Japanese experience. The bar was a hidden, hole-in-the-wall underground restaurant with a very salaryman hangout spot feeling: minimalist as opposed to the opulence of the high end cocktail bar scene. I highly recommend going to either here or a similar place while visiting Japan; while an excellent experience, the cocktail scene is still a "fringe" movement and skipping out on a more mainstream, everyman sake specialty den would be a missed opportunity!
Bar Tram & TRIAD Bar
Bar Tram, Bar Trench, and the new (as of 2017) Bar TRIAD are a set of three "brother" bars. Our first visit was to Bar Tram on the urging of my dipsomaniac brother-in-law, who had met bar manager Hideaki Takemura while drinking in New York. The atmosphere of these bars are probably the most familiar to American patrons of upscale bars – the dark and sexy interiors are reminiscent of the prohibition era and bartenders are dressed in mobster-style 1920s vests, suits, and hats. The only detail inconsistent with the "speakeasy" feel is the sign on the streets, loudly proclaiming "Bar Tram: Get Drunk Different" with "Elixir, Absinthe" listed and a giant arrow pointing the way upstairs.
Bar Tram features a wide selection of absinthes and absinthe-based cocktails. The patrons are mostly Japanese, with small groups of friends or couples seated on couches and intimately conversing while absinthe fountains drip away at their small private tables. Or in the rather bemusing case of the couple seated at a table near us, aggressively flowing like a water tap into the gentleman's glass.
Already buzzed (from Fuon and a beer hall) and a bit hung over from our previous day's drinking, we agreed upon one drink only. Our choices were a lower-proof amaro sour and a rye and amaro based cocktail, staying firmly out of the clutches of the green fairy that would lead us astray into drinking more. That was a piss poor (or wonderful) decision, because we ended up drinking more anyway.
After showing a picture of my brother-in-law with Hideaki-san to one of the waiters, he said "oh" and came back with Hideaki-san himself. He invited us to take a picture to match the one with my brother-in-law. At the same time, two prime spots opened at the bar and we snatched the seats so we engage in our favorite past-time of chatting with people that aren't each other.
Asked for something peaty and smokey, Hideaki-san made a Black Manhattan-proportioned (or so I think it was) Laphroaig with Amaro Averna and a dash of bitters. I didn't expect it to work, but it worked shocking well. Black Manhattans, as far as I know, use Averna in place of sweet vermouth but usually call for a sweeter rye base. I've made one since I got back and am really enjoying how simple and delicious the cocktail is.
After talking us through Bar Tram's broad collection of absinthes, he mentioned we should visit their newest bar: Bar TRIAD. In a last-ditch effort to not get too drunk that night, we told him we would and that "well, we should get going to TRIAD, then!" To be quite honest, we lied. Our intentions were to go home and wake up sober... Well at least one of us anyway... The other confessed that he had zero intention of getting just one drink, and intended to go to Bar TRIAD to experience the pair.
In a true testament to how incredible the service at the bar is, Hideaki-san then personally walked us over to Bar TRIAD. introduced us to the bartenders, and took us on a tour of the upstairs. When we sat down to imbibe, we were presented with a set of their new menus inspired by the Orient Express railroad.
As the allure of the description beneath the "Who is the Murderer?" cocktail - a complicated listing of Glenlivet 12y, Campari, Earl Gray Tea, Punt e mes, Suze, Underberg, Sea Salt, and All Spice - was too great to ignore, we ordered that one. And the Wilder Julep as well.
The verdict on the cocktails was that the Murderer might have been a bit too complex (it tasted muddled). The julep was a touch too sweet, but the chamomile infusion worked well with the fresh mint. Overall Japanese drinkers seem to prefer their drinks a little sweeter, and tend to shun heavily bitter drinks.
There's a lot of promise in Bar TRIAD. The first two (Bar Tram and Bar Trench) are widely reknown as excellent bars - and the need for expansion is apparent in the three-floor Bar TRIAD. While Bar Tram is focused on absinthes and Bar Trench is focused on herbal liquers and classic cocktails, Bar TRIAD feels like it has a more experimental bent, which is exciting even though we found the cocktails we had a bit more in the R&D phase. We spent a while chatting with the bartenders who are clearly knowledgeable about their spirits, and I'm excited to see the new bar evolve.