It’s just three months in, and I usually wait a little longer to review. But BAKU is doing so much so well so quickly, I should catch you up.
Focusing on the Japanese grilling technique called robata, the place turns out skewers of Wagyu beef, mugi-miso-marinated hunks of tofu, sake-glazed chicken wings (yes! skewered!) and more: Tea-brined duck breast and teriyaki-glazed wild king salmon and an ethereal black cod with a smear of miso glaze and pickled onion.
These are the stars, their bright (or rich, or both) flavors accentuated by the special charcoal used and, often, by flavored salts served alongside. (Note to kitchen: On those, please ratchet back the salt a bit, so we can use more of these special ones without having to drain our sake glasses in the first five minutes.)
Ah, the sake: A long and well-explained list is offered. There should be more by-the-glass offerings, and it’s unfortunate the lower-priced bottles aren’t reliably in supply, but it’s a good start.
Chef Michael Shortino had been in Arizona, doing a robata place that was in turn a spinoff of a London place, before the ownership group brought him to Charlotte. Here, he says, he’s added 10 or 12 items since opening and will continue to add as he goes, from live uni (sea urchin) to housemade duck pastrami. “I have always said that this is the concept of 1,000 flavors,” he says, and that’s “why I’ve loved it more than any other concept I’ve worked on.”
In the works when I corresponded with Shortino were the addition of bronzino, bonito tataki and a shrimp tempura roll.
Servers are critical in a concept that’s not familiar to all, and ours ranged from good to excellent. They know ingredients, recommend with confidence and can even explain – pretty close to accurately – what Wagyu beef is, which appears on the menu in a rib-eye at market price and in a 8- to 10-ounce special for $38. It’s not Kobe beef, it comes from Snake River Farms, and it’s well-marbled, as they correctly state, although it’s not “the breed Kobe beef comes from.” (That whole thing is complex, and the best detailed explanation I’ve found is at onforb.es/1emBzXB.)
It’s a good thing they’re conversant, because there’s a lot on this menu – too much – that requires explanation for most people. Gochujang to tentsuyu, mugi to wafu: Mostly they’re just condiments or dipping sauces or dressings, but why make people nervous? The food’s too good to risk that.
Besides the robata items, most of which are meant to be ordered in groups and shared (which servers explain), BAKU does tempura, salads, vegetable and rice dishes and a fairly concise list of sushi. We had killer toro nigiri, a beautiful marbled cut of bluefin tuna belly (as it should be for $17 for two pieces); several maki, some gunkan (constructed like tiny boats) and an omakase (chef’s choice) platter are offered, too.
Sweets range from chocolate to a delicate yuzu tart, but best are the simple sorbets in marvelous flavors: sour cherry, chamomile-yuzu, strawberry-lime, pineapple-mandarin-orange and more. When fresh, their texture is perfect, and they arrive with sliced fruit, from the common (watermelon, pineapple) to the un- (star fruit, prickly pear).
All of this arrives amid an idiosyncratic, lots-to-look-at, two-story interior dotted with elegant and humorous detail – from a sentry of 10 horses marching across shelving on one wall to the black sheep now guarding the front door, verses painted onto wood flooring to aphorisms on lampshades. Wood, bamboo, servingware in interesting shapes and a range of clean-lined portraiture enliven the place but keep a simple, rustic, comfortable feel. Comfort and vibrancy? It’s a winning combination.
BAKU is also the name in Japan of a nightmare-eating supernatural being, supposedly made of the odds and ends of other animals, fitting for this diverse and wide-ranging menu. If it can keep up this start, some of our nightmares – like SouthPark having so little in the way of creative, exciting fare – are over.
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