As recently as two years ago, we were lamenting that the best Japanese food in the Bay Are could only be found outside of San Francisco, further down the Peninsula through the South Bay. Fortunately, that has changed over the past year with the opening of Kusakabe and Pabu. The latter takes its name from the Japanese pronunciation of “pub” (pah-boo) and opened a little more than a year ago, along with its more casual sister restaurant Ramen Bar. Pabu bills itself as an Izakaya-style restaurant, although one could almost argue that sushi is its strongest point. Owner/Chef Michael Mina collaborated with Partner/Chef Ken Tominaga, noted for the Hana Japanese Restaurant in Sonoma County, to provide the modern-yet-traditional Japanese fare using only the freshest and pristine ingredients.
We have actually dined there a few times over the past year, but a post always eluded us as we waited for the right time to experience the Omakase Tasting menu. That time has finally come.
Pabu is an ambitious concept with several dining “ambience” options available. The main dining room with the sushi bar and a few tatami-like booths seats about 90, the intimate candle-lit patio seats about 20 more, and the showcase bar and lounge that dominates the front entrance seats up to 40 more. Unfortunately, the Tasting Menu is not available in the bar and lounge area, which accounts for our delay in posting.
Long time Michael Mina Bar Manager Carlo Splendorini moved to Pabu to make this his home bar location. Much like a farm-to-table chef, Carlo will update the drink list to reflect seasonality. Many of his cocktails are also modern-yet-traditional, providing a different drinking experience from other bars. On our most recent visit, Carlo concocted this Japanese Whiskey cocktail made with Hibiki 12-year, strawberry and rhubarb bitters with just a splash of tonic water.
A great example of the modern-traditional approach to Carlo’s cocktail is the Pabu Boru. Named after the Japanese pronunciation of “bowl” (seeing a pattern yet?), this excellent drink sipped from an artisanal clay pot is made with a mixture of Vida Mezcal, orange juice, agave syrup with a yuzukoshu and pepper spiced rim.
Japanese Whiskey is also front and center, as Carlo takes inspiration with enhancing the brown spirits with a taste and aromatic experience. For example, the Hibiki 12-year whiskey has strong pear notes, so he serves a “shot” by first blow-torching some pear with sugar, smudging one of the pieces on the outside of the glass for aroma and serving the other piece as a food pairing with the whiskey.
So we find it hard not to drink and dine at the bar with Carlo and his staff. But another couple of friends joined us at our recent visit, so we finally got to experience the Tasting Menu. We have ordered bottles of sake in the past, but we decided to stick with the generously poured Momokawa Junmai Ginjo, which just happens to be our Happy Hour libation of choice at Pabu. Served Japanese style, with sake over-poured creating a pool in its holding cup, it’s almost like getting two drinks in one and an excellent deal at $8 per glass ($5.88 at happy hour).
The eight course Tasting Menu is pretty spectacular and worth experiencing at least once. Rather than numbering each course, they are labelled after random Japanese-like words or nouns such as Pin, Ryan, Geta, Dari, Menoji, Ronji, Seinan and Dezaato. The first course, Pin, featured the Happy Spoon that is also available on the regular menu. A Kuushi oyster is accompanied by uni, ikura (salmon roe), tobiko and an interesting ponzu crème fraîche. The perfect briny and delicious bite was a great start for our evening to come.
The Ryan course consisted of chilled lotus slices that were sweetly and umami flavored by soy, sesame, and togarashi chili. The root was accompanied by fresh tasting Kanpachi sashimi topped with tobiko (fish roe), pine nuts and fried shallots swimming in a yuzukosho ponzu sauce. The pine nuts were an interesting addition that we would never would have thought would go so well with the sashimi, but it reflects the chef’s background in blending European and Japanese flavors together.
Geta, the Japanese word for the wooden shoes that look like gates or bridges, featured different sushi pieces mostly representing the Tai (sea bream) snapper family of fish. It was a great way to really see and taste how fish of the same biological genre could be so different in flavor and texture. From front to back, we were given the Ibodai (butterfish with soy), Madai (red seabream with lemon and salt), Kinmedai (splendid alfonsino with soy) and Mako Karei (Japanese flounder with soy).
The Dari course showcased the silver-skinned fishes from mostly the mackerel family. From front to back we were served Kohada (gizzard shad with soy), Masaba (seasonal mackarel flavored with konbu seaweed), Shima Aji (striped jack with soy and sesame) and Aji (Japanese horse mackerel with ginger and scallion). We noticed that even though soy sauce is available on the table, every fish came perfectly pre-seasoned and required no additions.
Mackerel tends to have strong “fishy” flavor (in a good way), so a palate cleanser made with rhubarb and hibiscus tea, yuzukoshu, lemongrass ice and ginger oil was provided to prepare our taste buds for the next course.
It made sense to reset our palate for Menoji, the course that featured four excellent, but very different, representatives of the tuna family. From front to back: Katsuo (wild bonito with ginger and soy), Negitoro (fatty bluefin tuna with scallion), Mebachi (bigeye tuna with soy), Hon Maguro (bluefin tuna) showed us the versatility in flavor and preparation of this fish genre.
The last sushi course, Ronji, featured pristine and delicious versions of different shellfish. Botany Ebi (spot prawn with soy), Shiran Ebi (baby white shrimp with ginger and soy), Kani (snow crab with lemon) and Hotate (scallop with salt and lemon) made for an interesting course. Both of the shrimp were extremely sweet and tender, while the crab and scallop tastes were decadent enough to serve as a great ending for the sushi courses. Our only complaint was that the prawn heads were not served and probably ended up as a staff meal treat.
The Seinan course was an insanely great Wagyu Shabu Shabu. The naming of this course proved that there is some method to their naming madness, as seinan literally translates to ‘southwest’, such as where Texas is located, likely the state where their Wagyu beef came from. Different cuts of the well marbled meat came with flaming bowls of konbu dashi broth pre-stocked with mushrooms and radishes — the same vegetables that accompanied the meat. Each diner also received teacups filled with delicious versions of shabu shabu dipping sauces: goma-dare (sesame) and ponzu.
We were advised to “swish” (shabu) the beef in the hot pot for no longer than 10 seconds, which was just enough to add a nice fatty beef flavor to the dashi broth. Mid-way through the course, a server brought along bowls of house-made udon that were flavored with mushrooms and miso. He then scooped out some of the broth from the pot into the noodle bowl. This made for a great traditional Japanese ending for a savory meal, where a rice or noodle dish is always served last.
The last course, Dezaato, is one of the more obviously named courses — it is the way “dessert” is pronounced in Japanese (day-zah-toe). The Pabu Sundae Anmitsu had just the right amount of sweetness to end a perfect Japanese meal. Coconut with rose water ice cream, coconut cream, jelly, mochi rice balls and lychee were topped with a refreshing matcha green-tea syrup.
The Tasting Menu Omakase was a really great and interesting way to taste nigiri variations — it’s unlike any sushi experience that we have had. It’s probably not for everyone, but we felt that it was a great deal at $110 per diner. Pristine sushi followed by decadent Wagyu beef was just the right amount of food for all of us.
Apart from the Omakase Tasting Menu, the izakaya and sushi menu is fairly extensive with many choices of hot and cold prepared items. Highlights from past meals include the Chef’s Selection of Robata Tasting where several skewers of grilled meat items came on a single plate (left). The Tsukune chicken meatballs came with its own egg yolk dipping sauce. This platter really is a great way to try out the Izakaya-style half of the kitchen.
We always like to judge an Izakaya-style restaurant by how good their chicken karaage, is and Pabu’s version does not disappoint. The seemingly grease-free Tokyo Fried Chicken ‘Karaage’ (shown left) served with a spicy mayo is deliciously crunchy. A half portion is available during happy hour which makes for a worthy visit. The Chawanmushi (right) is a treasure trove of shrimp, scallop, matsutake mushroom and ikura (salmon roe) served in a delicate custard with dashi broth on the side.
Sushi is available in nigiri, handroll and maki roll variations. One of the most decadent items that suits our penchant for toro (fatty tuna), caviar and sea urchin, is Michael’s Negitoro maki roll. Each piece is stuffed with bluefin toro and topped with scallion, uni and ikura (salmon roe). It’s one of the pricier items, but well worth it.
They also offer a great Happy Hour on weekdays from 3 – 6 pm. The sake shots can be accompanied with discounted snacks such as spicy handrolls made with a choice of salmon, scallop or tuna (left) and also an interesting cheese platter served with stone fruit and honey gelée (right).