A Respite by Any Other Name: Bara Is an East Village Rose With Very Few Thorns
All photos by Bradley Hawks for the Village Voice
The first warming sip enveloped me like a fog: scotch's sting softened in a tea infuser, followed by the bright sourness of lemon and the aroma of ironwort, also known as Mount Olympus flower. Then the familiar flavor of spiced plums, only a faint whisper but still humming in the background — courtesy of patxaran, a Basque sloe liqueur traditionally served chilled as a digestif.
With his "Fair Isle" cocktail, Bara's (58 East 1st Street) beverage director Kyle Storm has created a hot toddy with depth, just the thing for a numbing winter night. His mixed drinks (six of them, ranging in price from $10 to $13) are thoughtful and engaging, complex but uncomplicated, whipped up behind a four-seat bar adorned with bottles and a backlit façade.
The aesthetic at this East Village restaurant loosely borrows from both East and West — Japan and France, primarily — so Japanese spirits like sake pair with mezcal and ginger, and shochu gets stirred with black-sesame-infused vodka and Combier triple sec. Storm, who has the perfect weatherman's name and chiseled features to match, stretches his mixology muscles for the "Santiago," a rum-based libation that melds rice milk and jaggery, an unrefined cane sugar popular in South Asia. A daily sour plays with different combinations of spirit and citrus. Moderately priced wines (topping out at $64 for a biodynamic sparkling chenin blanc from the Loire Valley) and beers join boutique sake and awamori, a distilled spirit native to Okinawa, to round out the drink list. All match nicely with the plates of pickled vegetables the restaurant provides gratis.
Chef Ian Alvarez worked with Storm in Brooklyn at the Boerum Hill bistro French Louie, and both plied their trades at outposts of the Momofuku empire. Alvarez named the new restaurant after his mother (bara is Japanese for rose), painting its exposed-brick walls white to contrast a duo of inlaid vases that hold colorful flowers. With only a modest crew, he splits his time between the bar and a partially open kitchen, conferring with staff and handing off bowls of steamed cockles or clams destined for the slab-marble tabletops. Piled high around moats of enoki mushroom broth tinted green with garlicky pistou, the tender shellfish burst with brine. Bara's seafood dishes are uniformly good: Horseradish shavings and ponzu sauce cut through the oiliness of mackerel tataki; a frequent special of whole-roasted black bass, its skin crackled and basted in sticky, sherry-vinegar-based tare glaze, easily sates two hungry diners. Alvarez steers this fusion-fueled ship with a steady hand, maneuvering a cultural minefield with dexterity.
In Japan, the tamarind-and-anchovy bite of Worcestershire sauce commonly accompanies tavern foods like fried chicken and crispy tonkatsu pork cutlets. Alvarez ferments his own and pools it around slices of flatiron steak cooked to a blushing pink (the chef's temperature preference) and topped with snappy baby bok choy and a plump grilled oyster. Turn it into madcap steak frites with a side order of smashed and roasted fingerling potatoes planted in zesty yuzu kosho mayonnaise and hidden under a wispy veil of bonito flakes that lend the spuds a pervasive funk. Along with the beef, a well-rendered duck breast ladled with tea sauce over sunflower-seed purée commands the highest price at $22. The kitchen also finds success with restraint. Flan-like chawanmushi, a sumptuous and delicate egg custard, brings the sweet and salty kiss of crab tempered by aromatic fines herbes and nutty sesame. Noodleless chicken soup flirts with earthiness thanks to enoki mushrooms, Tokyo turnips, soy-marinated eggs with jammy yolks, and a sheet of nori.
Rare missteps stick out. A miniature cocotte filled with soupy preserved artichoke gratin — the vegetables halved and nearly impossible to balance atop shards of Armenian flatbread — begs for a food processor to create a more cracker-friendly dip. Roasted carrots and endive leaves enjoy a zesty peppercorn sauce and pucker-worthy umeboshi pickled plums, but the edible arrangement would benefit from a crunchy element. But they're exceptions to the rule.
Joining the rising tide of chefs offering budget-friendly tasting menus, Alvarez orchestrates five-course meals for a modest $55. The prix fixe includes a curated sendoff: Choose between hefty sesame and red-bean macarons or a shallow dish of panna cotta glistening with a layer of strawberry preserves dotted with candied pistachios. The custard smacks of white miso and rosemary, luscious and buoyant in texture and rolling over the taste buds with salty and savory notes. The clever pairing feels comforting and natural, like motherly love, and I might have an Oedipus complex.
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