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First Bite: BAKU opens in Charlotte

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- HELEN SCHWAB
Black cod with pickled onion: lush and perfect.

The food: The last time I was this excited about a new place, it also had Asian fare new to and rare in Charlotte and a four-letter name with the same vowels in the same places. That was the shooting star (now defunct) Kalu.

BAKU has that excitement, culinarily, plus several advantages: It’s accessible (easy parking! Ignore the valets!), servers are cordial and reasonably knowledgeable, and the decor is dramatic without being over the top.

But the food on opening night: exceptional. Lush chicken livers on skewers, rich bits of butterfish wrapped around white asparagus, delicate Kurobata pork dumplings, unctuous black cod cooked perfectly, with pungent pickled onions giving just the right pop. The menu is voluminous, but each section is well-edited, from a variety of small plates and sushi to a handful of larger robata dishes. An interesting lineup of cocktails (so much Hendricks!) and pages of sakes and wines round out the cork-bound book you’re brought; it’s unwieldy, but I look forward to working my way through it. All the way through it.

The look: Red, black, wood, stone – there’s a definite earthy, elemental quality, plus quirks like tiny aphorisms on lampshades and geisha eyes on a wall. And the black sheep near the bar; you have to love that. But you might think from press and the website that there’s a big sandpit with fish on sticks in the center of the room and ... no.

BAKU’s press has emphasized its robata cooking, which means “around the fire,” and indeed, you can see the special-charcoal setup near the front door. But it’s not the focal point. The place strikes me more as an izakaya – Japan's equivalent to a tapas place. The word means, essentially, sitting in a sake shop, and it’s designed to offer a variety of things to eat while you drink. Several lounge-y areas offer different kinds of seating in the two-story spot.

The service: Swarming service brought dishes as they were ready, and things arrived at the right temperatures and presented properly. There were a few opening-night confusions, but they were minor and handled with aplomb.

The details: Small plates run about $4-$18; entrees about $18-$28 (Wagyu ribeye is market price; $89 for 32 ounces on opening night, and one drew iPhone photographing by other customers); 4515 Sharon Road; 704-817-7173; baku-restaurant.com/.

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