Saturday, December 4, 2010

Y&M Kisling Bar, Ginza - from wd 6/7/2009

This is Mr. Yoshida.

Having tended bar for over 55 years, and now in his 70's, Mr. Yoshida is the Head Bartender of Tokyo's Y&M Kisling Bar. When I think of Mr. Yoshida, the words National Treasure come up constantly, and I was really taken with the soul of the man, both extremely kind and commanding at the same time.

Mr. Yoshida has taught his craft to many of the famous names amongst the younger generation of Tokyo bartenders. Like many of them, Mr. Yoshida practices a variant of the "Hard Shake," shaking large chunks of chipped ice very firmly in the cocktail shaker for up drinks. Mr. Yoshida shakes what might be called "the Snake Dance", or at least that is what I termed it for myself. When Mr. Yoshida makes a martini it is an interpretive dance set in motion. He moves maybe four feet backwards, and his arms move out like a cobra head coming from the basket, only faster. Mr. Yoshida, in his seventh decade, and most likely having suffered a minor stroke at some point, moves 4 feet in a rapid and prolonged "dance of the serpent" each time he makes a drink in a shaker. I really felt honored to witness it.

Y&M Kisling Bar occupies a non-descript office building location in Ginza, not far from upscale boutiques, with a 4 person staff of Mr. Yoshida and Junior Bartenders who also act as hosts and coatcheck. A few banquet tables and then the bar itself make up the space. Seating for about 30 in sum. We arrived just as it was opening, and thus had the place to ourselves for awhile.

Later, a small crowd of older Japanese businessmen filled up the seats at the bar. The low lighting, white jacketed staff, and smoking allowed setup lend a classic bar feel. In some of the finer points, it is quite upscale: there are all manner of complimentary mouthwashes and toothpicks in the bathroom, the junior bartenders sport black bow ties instead of neckties, there was a complimentary snack of a delicious warm soup, and there is a heavy emphasis on old and rare brown spirits which are collected in a wood cabinet to the far side of the bar.

The back bar is also deep, with several shelves stacked with bottles, and the staff were constantly pulling out another chilled bottle of gin or vodka out of some previously unseen refrigerated drawer or cabinet.

There is also a fantastic looking assortment of antique looking glassware behind a refrigerated glass display case.

Note the two kinds of martini glasses: apparently, Mr. Yoshida prefers one sort of martini glass, while another bartender prefers the other, and thus both are stocked. One glass shape was taller and wider, the other smaller and more like a coupe. While inspecting the glassware we were also shown the "secret" other WHOLE TWIN CABINET full of chilled glassware. This place takes chilled glassware very seriously.

This is the Junior Bartender.

This gentleman - who is probably older than me - has been tending bar for 22 years and was previously a Head Bartender at a famous hotel bar in Tokyo before deciding to come apprentice under Mr. Yoshida to further his training. The Junior bartenders at Y&M really work in tandem with Mr. Yoshida, setting up each liquor or piece of equipment as they know he will need it for his next move in the cocktail recipe. Not unlike highly skilled nurses in an operating room. It is pretty amazing when you think about it. They know each recipe and step so well, that when they see Mr. Yoshida make one move, they then know what the next will be.

Oh, yes, THE Mr. Yoshida, who arrived behind the bar and immediately came to me and shook my hand in warm greeting, although we had never met before.

We were lucky, because Mr. Yoshida only works the bar 3 or 4 nights a week and this was one of them, while on the other evenings another revered bartender Heads the Y&M. Mr. Yoshida talked with our party quite a bit, and from what I could tell Mr. Yoshida embodied the soul of hospitality, an old and calm master of his trade.

Mr. Yoshida took a liking to us and would pour a little taste of whatever cocktail he had made for another guest in a shot glass for us to try, or whip up small tastes of some of his signature drinks, such as his blueberry/sake/sambuca/Roses lime mixture, for us to try gratis.

It turns out one of the ingredients for Roses lime is forbidden in Japan, and thus it has to be handcarried in as contraband. They are rather proud to offer some at Y&M. They had 2 bottles of the lime, but had not seen a bottle of Roses grenadine for some time. Mr. Yoshida is a quite knowledgeable about the subject of Roses lime, explaining that it is made in three different countries, but that only that Roses lime which is produced in America is made from 100% juice, while the other two are made from some lesser percentage. Thus the American Roses lime is quite sought after in Japan. This was quite a Through the Looking Glass experience to hear this while sipping my Amer Picon, as of course Roses lime is in every market in America, while Japanese markets are busy stocking Cuban Rums and Old Tom Gins, but no Roses.

There were many stories that Mr. Yoshida was nice enough to share with us. The gentleman has been at the bar for 55 years, after all, and has seen the changes that have been the changes in Japan itself. He once worked with one of the first sommeliers in Japan, back at a hotel bar, and that gentleman he worked with is apparently like a Kermit Lynch figure in Japan, largely responsible for starting the foreign wine import trade to Japan as they know it today. I wasn't able to catch the sommelier's name.

Mr. Yoshida said that his own mentor, the man who taught him the trade, is still alive and living in Hokkaido, where he still runs a bartender school today, in his late 80's.

Mr. Yoshida made several drinks for us. Perhaps the best martini of my entire life to this date, from only Gordon's gin and a bit of Noilly Prat vermouth, was all about perfect proportions (all eyeballed, with no jigger used), great mixing, and chilled everything (glass, gin, everything). I not sure how he got the lemon twist taste in there. I saw him hold one up for an instant and then it was gone, but the flavor was perfect in the drink. It occurred to me that it is the obsession with chilling the ingredients and vessels used for each drink that allows for the famous "Hard Shake." If they were using room temperature liquors and regular cubes of ice (instead of the chipped ice they use), there would probably be too much dilution in the drinks. Thus I saw not only chilled glassware for both mixing and serving, but also chilled bottles of gin, chilled bottles of vodka, and even chilled bottles of bourbon (presumably for Manhattans).

A chilled glass in the prep area awaiting a drink.

Mr. Yoshida also made a citrus up drink for my wife, and showed us the orange-like Japanese fruit that the juice (freshly squeezed) had come from.

And then there was the amazing milk based drink that my wife got on the next round, after we asked Mr. Yoshida about his specialties and favorite drinks. Really delicious.

It had gin, milk, lemon, and club soda in it. I was told by the Junior Bartender that usually one cannot make drinks with lemon and milk together, because the milk curdles, but that this drink was stirred in a way that it would not curdle, which it clearly hadn't because it was delicious. Mr. Yoshida said that he hadn't made the drink in awhile, but that it used to be his favorite, and that he used to make it all the time. When some other gentleman at the bar saw my wife with it, they ordered one up as well, and Mr. Yoshida made another. I returned this favor by ordering a Bloody Cesar for my next drink, which I had seen Mr. Yoshida make for one of those gentlemen.

It was EXCELLENT, and again, a testament to the difference a chilled glass can make on a drink.

A master like Mr. Yoshida could have lorded it over the bar, but he was just the opposite. He cared and cared. He wanted to know all about us. He speaks no English, but he was all ears. I started snapping a ton of photos. It is pretty amazing when other Japanese patrons start getting amazed by how many pictures the "Oh, the American" is taking. Again, it was Through the Looking Glass. And a good vibe was happening as a result. Smiles were coming out, people were ordering drinks just to try them, and there was a feeling that we were all very lucky to be there for this night. At least that is how I felt.

Because it won't possibly be forever, and here was a connection to so much.

My thanks to Y&M Kisling Bar for their nonpareil drinks, superb hospitality, and tolerance of my amateur iphone picture taking. Thanks should also go to my wife for her patient translations.

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