Serious Eats: Chicago
We Chat With: Chef Gene Kato and Bartender Matthew Lipsky of the forthcoming Charcoal Bar
Chef Gene Kato has tapped Matthew Lipsky, former bar manager at The Southern, Morso, and, most recently, Untitled, to take over operations at Charcoal Bar, a new cocktail bar concept tentatively slated to open December 1, in tandem with Kato's Sumi Robata Bar. In a conversation with Lipsky and Kato at the Streeterville sake lounge Murasaki, they revealed details of the previously unannounced Charcoal Bar, which will occupy the basement space below Sumi Robata Bar and focus on heavily service-minded Japanese-style bartending.
The 11-seat Charcoal Bar will consist of five barstools and a two- and a four-top, with all seating available on a first come, first served basis. Customers will enter through a separate street entrance from Sumi Robata Bar, which leads down into the intimate space. "It's small, but it's roomy for its size," Lipsky said. "We're not trying to pack people in." Customers will only be admitted when seats are available. "It's definitely more about service, and quality over quantity."
The idea for Charcoal Bar is two years old. Kato initially looked to the coasts to fill the manager position. Only after an exhaustive search did he finally connect with Lipsky. "I needed to find somebody that has that philosophy, that presence," Kato said, "but also is excited about trying to make that adjustment to the Japanese philosophy of bartending."
With this pair of establishments, Kato went on, "I really wanted to change Americans' perception of an authentic-style Japanese restaurant." Much like Sumi Robata Bar closely emulates a real Japanese robata yaki, Charcoal Bar is a place where you can get authentic Japanese-style bartending service. "To put everything together, our philosophy comes down to one word, which is takumi, which means artisan or craftsman. So you have people who spend their whole life focusing on one craft—that's it. That's who we are, and that's why I was fortunate to find someone like Matthew. Bartending is his craft."
"The first floor is based on the raw material of where charcoal comes from, which is wood," Kato said, referring to Sumi, the street-level restaurant, whose name is the Japanese word for charcoal. "So it has the lighter color of wood, and the texture of wood. And then the lower floor"—Charcoal Bar—"is the finished product, which is dark, which is burnt. The décor is going to be really great, because it will have that dark color scheme. We're going to try to incorporate as much charcoal into the design as possible."
Kato added that a small number of sculptural pieces made from charcoal will also decorate the clean, minimalist space, and long, hand-burned wood planks will line the walls. A lone flourish, present in both venues and thus helping to tie their designs together, will be a Meiji-period antique teapot hanging on a chain, which is meant to evoke an irori, a traditional Japanese firepit and an ancestor to the modern robata grill.
"Japanese style of service is so detail-oriented," Lipsky said. The bartender's movements are typically quick but precise, and watching a cocktail being prepared is a big part of the customer's enjoyment of that drink. "[Japanese bartenders] go above and beyond what a lot of Westerners think of as service. It's looking out for that customer more than they would expect."
Lipsky will serve all customers directly and encourage them to order drinks based on their preferences. "We'll have cocktails on the menu. But by all means, I want people to be like, 'Dealer's choice. This it what I like, this is what I don't like.' That's fun for me... And just because we have amazing service doesn't mean it has to be stuffy. No one likes that stuffy service anymore." Kato added, "If you really enjoy drinking and seeing your drinks being made, if you love the attention to detail, that is the place."
Charcoal Bar will feature a concise cocktail menu of four to five original drinks. The rest of the drinks lists will be likewise focused: about eight varieties of beer will be available, all hailing from Japan; all nine or so wines will be French; and the dozen sakes available will include strong examples of the range of varieties. But much like at his previous posts, Lipsky will stock Charcoal Bar with several fine whiskeys, with particular attention paid to Japanese brands.
In order to stay focused on the patrons at Charcoal Bar, Lipsky will be offering a selection of hand-crafted bottled cocktails for diners at Sumi Robata Bar; the made-to-order cocktail menu will be only be available downstairs. (The food from Sumi Robata Bar will also be served at Charcoal Bar.) "I didn't want to take away from the people who are sitting in front of me, if I'm making drinks for 35 people upstairs," Lipsky said. The pre-made bottled cocktails will be more Japanese in their ingredients, utilizing, say, cold-brewed green tea and Japanese shochu in lieu of vodka.
Lipsky avoided getting into specifics about Charcoal Bar's original cocktails, but did stress that preparations would be simple and unfussy. He did reveal that one drink will feature cloudberries, a rare fruit from Scandinavia he's been trying to source for years. There's likely to be a dark, smoky cocktail inspired by the bar's charcoal theme. Lipsky plans to hand-carve ice from large blocks, a common practice at high-end Tokyo bars. And the barware will include stainless steel and gold picks, exquisite glassware, and hand-blown Japanese bitters bottles. "I'm really excited to finally have the tools that I think are necessary," Lipsky said, "because little things do make a difference."
Kato is also planning to open a third dining concept in the same building, which will occupy the second floor, sometime next year. "My goal is to open five concepts in the next five years in Chicago," he said. "They're all going to be small and all focused on one thing. I want people, when they come into Chicago and they're looking for a true Japanese experience, I want them to think of our restaurants."