Based in Toronto and New York City

, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Archival posts from my former blog, Walking and Talking

In Tokyo, Mixologizing with the Seasons

Gen Yamamoto, ready for business.
One of the best parts of a highlight-filled trip to Tokyo recently was dropping in on Bar Gen Yamamoto. Gen joined David Bouley's New York City team in late 2010 and the following April helped open Brushstroke, Bouley's French-tinged play on kaiseki cuisine. There, he specialized in fruit- and vegetable-based cocktails that were remarkable for their elegance and subtlety. I was a fan in New York, and curious to see what new concoctions the gifted mixologist had up his freshly-pressed sleeve in Tokyo.

He's set up his welcoming eight-seat bar in Azabu-Juban, a neighborhood where remnants of old Japan collide with  embassies, cafes and an international mix of residents. To the delight of his followers, he's also extended his range with a cocktail list that serves as a guide to the agrarian bounty of his native country.

We tried a four-course tasting menu (¥4,200, six-course is ¥5,800) which started with a refreshing mix of cucumber from Ibaraki, Kumamoto cantaloupe, Okinawa hiba-chi pepper, and Kawabe rice shochu. The latter is from a region in Kumamoto Prefecture known for its pristine waters.

 Fruit opener: cucumber, cantaloupe, hiba-chi pepper, rice shochu.

Full of beans: Ehime fava, kinome, junmai ginjo Raifuku.

Excited about the range of produce he has access to from all over Japan, Gen raves about the softness the tomato water he extracts from Ishiyama tomatoes that are now in season. He pays close attention to the condition of each tomato, and depending on variables such as when in the season they are picked and when in the tasting service he places it, he may use one of seven different tomato cocktail recipes. "The main thing is that I'm always looking for improvement and trying to surprise my guests," he says. The one we sampled included both fresh tomato, a housemade confiture of tomato, shiso and Rives Spanish gin. 

Not your mom's bloody Mary: Tomato cocktail

Another of Gen's finds is raw Kumano dogwood honey. The trees' flowers produce enough honey for bees to collect only every four years, resulting in a denseness of flavor that he likes combined with Ehime new summer orange (the flavor of which is somewhere between yuzu, grapefruit and lemon), mint and Torikai rice shochu.

The "dessert" course: summer orange, Kumano honey, mint, rice shochu 

Gen himself brings to mind a latter-day Jeeves, an unflappable master of his trade who never seems to break a sweat. While he is tall and lean, however, his creations are uniquely round and soft. They don't deliver the blunt alcoholic KO that many drinkers seek, but creep up on you in stockinged feet; their impact can therefore come as a surprise at the end of the evening. 

The room Gen has created is remarkable as well, anchored by an beautiful, broad bar fashioned from a 500-year-old Japanese oak (mizunara) tree. Beige walls and minimal adornment complete the setting, making Bar Gen Yamamoto a soothing refuge where you can relax and converse with your fellow guests and host while sampling his quietly astonishing cocktails.

Bar Gen Yamamoto
1-6-4 Azabu-Juban
Minato-ku Tokyo 

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