I knew I was in for a treat when my pals at Manhattan's EN Japanese Brasserie invited me to sample cocktails up whipped up by their new mixologist, the incredibly talented Gen Yamamoto. I met Gen a month ago at a Japan-related gala, and loved his drinks. I've never been a huge cocktail fan, to be honest; save for the classics, most seemed to me uni-dimensional -- i.e., cloyingly sweet -- and nowhere near as sublime as sipping something aged in an oak barrel and served neat. But the last couple of years have changed my mind here in New York, as the city has been swept by serious cocktail bars staffed by mixologists elevating their craft to the level of fine chefs. So I was excited to meet Gen, who's clearly playing in the same league -- and stamping his work with a Japanese sensibility, to boot -- and really excited to hear he started plying his art at EN.
So what makes Gen's cocktails so special? The fresh kiwi and plums sitting on the bar offered a hint. "What I do is create a food pairing in a glass," Gen explained. "I respect the natural taste of fresh ingredients and the natural taste of the liquors I use." As he muddled the plums, he told me he creates drinks that reflect the seasons, incorporating seasonal ingredients such as tomatoes, cucumbers, ginger, pumpkin, concord grapes, even sweet potato and corn. But seasonality isn't the only thing he considers. "I respect the moment," he explained. Much like a kaiseki dinner, as Gen put it, he takes his patrons on a sensory journey as they sample his drinks, playfully tantalizing the senses all the while. So I put myself in Gen's hands, ordering a series of cocktails omakase - chef's choice (a first for me with drinks!). Gen, who started mixing drinks a decade ago in Tokyo, selected drinks from EN's current seasonal menu - kiwi with fennel and shochu; cucumber, vodka, salt and pepper; pineapple, vodka and rosemary tea; and shiso and gin. All were aromatic, subtle, complex, naturally and delicately sweet, but not overly so. Delicious. Somehow I did not become yoppari (drunk) that night. Did Gen slip some magic potion to his cocktails, too?
Here are some photos my pal Jesse Alexander took (also the top shot):
And, as promised in the headline, here's a fantastic drink recipe I adapted from Gen, with his gracious permission:
Warm Sake-Strawberry Whipped Cream Cocktail
Makes 1 drink
1/3 cup sake
1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
1/2 teaspoon strawberry preserves
1/2 teaspoon strawberry mashed through a strainer
2 teaspoons fresh sweetened whipped cream
1 slice of strawberry
1 mint leaf
Warm the sake in a water bath to body temperature, about 98 to 100 degrees. Gen recommends a sake called Dassai 50 from Yamaguchi Prefecture. When the sake is warm, mix in the simple syrup to give it more body and balance sweetness of the strawberry.
Mix together the strawberry preserves and strawberry mash, and then carefully fold in the whipped cream.
Pour the sake into a serving cup and dallop the strawberry whipped cream on top. Garnish with the strawberry slice and mint leaf, and serve.
(You'll recognize this drink in one of the photos.)