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First Look: PABU from Michael Mina

By Virginia Miller
July 2, 2014
Photo by: Virginia Miller

Sushi master (chef-owner of long-beloved Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park) Ken Tominaga joined forces with none other than Michael Mina to open PABU yesterday, along with The Ramen Bar, which opened June 30. We hit the spacious, multifaceted PABU both for a preopening event last week and a full dinner last night, experiencing the izakaya and robata grill bites at the bar with cocktails and Japanese whiskeys from Mina Group head bartender Carlo Splendorini and lead bartender Nick Jones, and also the full nigiri tasting menu ($95) with sake pairings ($50) from sake master sommelier Stuart Morris. Here are some early standout moments and recommendations.

101 California St.; 415-668-7228

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The nigiri tasting menu ($95) by Tominaga and Yoji Harada (recruited from Hana to run the sushi bar) is a showstopper. Perfect mounds of sushi rice are topped by four rounds of four different pieces of fish (16 different cuts of fish), some locally sourced, some flown in from none other than Japan's Tsukiji Market. The fish is impeccable, along with two starting courses, plus Wagyu shabu-shabu and dessert after the four nigiri courses. Pictured is an ethereal round of tunas, from fatty bluefin to wild bonito. 

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Head bartender Carlo Splendorini pours behind PABU's huge square bar under a towering atrium. The huge space, designed by BISHOP PASS, was inspired by the elements of air, earth and water. There's the airy, sprawling bar area, a low-ceiling, wood-lined sushi dining room with demure cherry blossoms painted on concrete walls and an enclosed, indoor garden dining room. 

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Among the many lovely drinks on Carlo Splendorini's cocktail menu ($13-$15), Summer is one of our favorites. Clean junmai sake comes to life with pickled strawberry juice, lemon juice and Japanese togarashi spices.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    We're big fans of chawanmushi, savory and silky Japanese custard. This cool version ($15) is a pleasure in dashi (broth), decadently topped with uni (sea urchin), shrimp, shiitake mushrooms and briny bursts of salmon roe.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    At a PABU preview dinner at Michael Mina months back, we could not forget unreal pairings from sake sommelier Stuart Morris, one of only a handful of non-Japanese sake sommeliers in the world. This time when the tray approached and we chose a unique glass to drink from, we knew — once again — we were in for another unforgettable round of pairings. Would you expect notes of melon, mushroom, almond, banana, white chocolate, fennel or earth in your sakes? We tasted all of them in a wide range of pours. Go in with an open mind and let Morris work his magic.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Another stunner of a nigiri round on the tasting menu: the last nigiri course (just before the last savory course of A4 and A5 Japanese Wagyu beef shabu-shabu), is a luxurious foursome of live scallop (hotate), giant clam (mirugai), sea urchin (uni) and the silkiest snow crab (zuwaigani) we've ever tasted.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    You can order chicken hearts and beef tongue, among a number of other robatayaki (slow-grilled over charcoal) skewers ($6-$8) at the bar, as well as cold and hot small plates ($6-$13), like this gratifying okonomiyaki (Japanese savory pancake, $10) filled with Monterey squid and pork belly and topped with a fried egg.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Another cocktail favorite is Tree ($13), a vivid-green drink combining Espolón blanco tequila and herbaceous Green Chartreuse with a lively house avocado-wasabi cordial, fresh lime and a shiso sugar rim. It's savory, understated, refreshing and happily vegetal — it tastes as "green" and fresh as it looks.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Tominaga’s signature bite from his Hana Japanese Restaurant days is on the regular and the tasting menu here: “Happy Spoon.” It's a lush spoonful of a vibrantly briny kushi oyster, Japanese uni, ponzu crème fraîche and the pop of two types of roe: salmon (ikura) and flying fish (tobiko). 

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The Japanese whiskey selection is one of the most extensive in the country, with a range of rare whiskeys from the famed Suntory and Nikka lines and beyond. A highlight is the Japanese whiskey ceremony menu ($16-$225, depending on the type chosen). A perfect, slowly diluting ice sphere is placed in a wine glass while a single bite that calls out flavors in the drink, maybe banana and raisins or roasted coconut, is torched tableside and the whiskey is poured over the ice sphere. We thrilled to a pairing of cult Japanese whiskey master Chichbu's first U.S. release, The First 3 Year Single Malt ($39), with a perfect, torched strawberry.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    Gazing from wood-lined booths to the sushi bar.

  • Photo by: Virginia Miller

    The tasting menu ends with a clean, lovely bowl of fresh white nectarine wedges and tart cherry sorbet doused in sparkling sake. Savory accents come from almond and shiso leaf. 

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