Sneak peek: Cocktails at hot new Izakaya focus on Japanese whisky and speedy service
For being one of the summer's most anticipated openings, little has been revealed about Izakaya, the Midtown bar and restaurant from Kata Robata owners the Azuma Group. Beyond that former Haven/Cove chef Philippe Gaston has been retained as co-executive chef with Kata's Manabu Horiuchi (known as Hori-san) and that it won't serve sushi, the establishment that's set to open next month in the former Farrago's space in Midtown remains a bit of a mystery — as in, it still doesn't have a website (but is on Facebook).
Sprouse worked as a bartender at Beaver' and opened Grand Prize, where she helped establish that bar's reputation for an unpretentious atmosphere with well-executed, reasonably-priced cocktails.
While Izakaya isn't quite ready to preview its food menu or interior design, CultureMap has been granted a look at its cocktail program, which is being created by the San Francisco-based consulting group Tin Roof Drink Community.
Houstonians may not recognize Tin Roof's name, but cocktail fans may remember Claire Sprouse, who is one of its two principals. Before she moved to San Francisco in 2011, Sprouse worked as a bartender at Beaver's and opened Grand Prize, where she helped establish that bar's reputation for an unpretentious atmosphere with well-executed, reasonably-priced cocktails. Sprouse's partner in Tin Roof is her boyfriend, Chad Arnholt, who has extensive experience in Boston and San Francisco as both a bartender and a consultant.
"They wanted somebody from outside of Houston to come in and do the program, because, I think, they wanted some fresh eyes and a different perspective," Sprouse says. "Philippe reached out to me; I’ve known Philippe for a long time. Chef Hori used to come into Beaver’s all the time when I was there."
Cocktails in Japan
To begin their work on the project, Sprouse and Arnolt spent two weeks in Japan sampling cocktails and absorbing the culture at a wide variety of izakayas. Arnholt says that one of the biggest lessons was how Japanese patrons put food and drinks on an equal footing when they visit an izakaya.
"In so far as that’s the case, we’re trying to go beyond just using a few ingredients that are representative of Japanese cuisine but also looking at the way that cocktails are served in a Japanese izakaya and having, for instance, that whiskey highball that’s really easy to serve and having those sessionable drinks that pair really well with food. Emulating in form as well as just ingredients," Arnholt says.
"We're trying to create drinks that are lighter, that aren’t going to overpower beautiful crudos and raw dishes."
"Because Izakaya is a bar, there’s going to be a lot of salty offerings from the hot line," she adds. "On that beat, we're trying to create drinks that are lighter, that aren’t going to overpower beautiful crudos and raw dishes. (We're) also having some heavier drinks that will pair well with the saltier, almost stoner-friendly Japanese bar food that Philippe is cooking up."
Izakaya will leverage the rising popularity of Japanese whisky in the U.S. by featuring an extensive selection of both single malt and blended spirits. While Americans are used to drinking whisky neat or on the rocks, Izakaya wants its patrons to drink them as highballs, just as they are in Japan. “Something that is refreshing that doesn’t have citrus or sugar added,” Sprouse adds. “I think the whiskey soda has been admonished like the vodka soda, but it’s a really great way of drinking, especially in Houston.”
Another perk of highballs is that they can be made and served quickly, which ties into a larger goal Sprouse and Arnholt have of delivering speedy service.
"Something I really admired about the (Japanese bar) culture is that some of the things they do for guests aren’t designed to be, like, ‘Hey, look at what I’m doing for you. Isn’t this nice that I’m doing this for you?’ It’s just ingrained in their system of hospitality," Sprouse says. "We really want to focus on guest experience, which should be fun. Everybody has a drink in their hand all the time without cutting any corners."
"We really want to focus on guest experience, which should be fun. Everybody has a drink in their hand all the time without cutting any corners."
Arnholt points to some physical elements in the bar's design, such as each well having its own sink, as something that customers may not notice but that are designed to make service more efficient. Sprouse describes these elements as inspired by "some better practices that we've learned over the years working in different places" and adds later that it includes lessons from trips across the country as well as Houston bars such as Bad News Bar and The Nightingale Room. Hopefully, Izakaya's bartenders will appreciate the subtle differences between the setup and what they're used to, because the various improvements are designed to make them faster at their jobs.
"It’s like a really good luggage handler at the airport where you get your luggage at the next airport and it’s perfect and hasn’t been scuffed," Arnholt explains. "In the ultimate world for hospitality, you’re happy and you love the service but you didn’t have to see all the inner parts when it was happening. All it did was sort of appear in front of you. I don’t want to know all the details all the time when I’m sitting at a bar. Sometimes that can bog down the experience."
Sprouse and Arnholt's sophisticated, customer-oriented cocktail program looks poised to be a major part of Izakaya's appeal. Together with new arrivals like Oporto Fooding House & Wine, Spare Key and Fluff Bake Bar, Izakaya will bring some additional diversity to Midtown's well-established party scene.
If only it would hurry up and open.