The Art of Simplicity at Tokyo's Gen Yamamoto
Gen Yamamoto's eponymous cocktail den in Tokyo is modern minimalist to the extreme. There's no artwork on the walls, no music playing in the background, no overloaded shelves jammed with hundreds of bottles. There's no assistant or bar back to help him, it's just Yamamoto, standing behind his eight-seat L-shaped bar, offering up drinks six days per week, three tastings per day, with a practiced but easy elegance.
The space is so unadorned that it almost serves as sensory deprivation, which actually heightens the tastes and aromas enjoyed with your full focus on the drinks and their preparation. Yet, despite what appears on the surface as an entirely basic or even barren space, every detail and choice was made purposefully.
His bar top is made from two massive, thick slabs of 500-year-old mizunara oak, the same prized species which Suntory covets for the maturation of their whiskies, such as Hibiki and Yamazaki. The bar's workstation is recessed, so that Yamamoto is at eye level with his seated customers. The bar is also exceedingly wide, and within its tiny room the space seems disproportionate until you're actually seated. It's as if nothing about Bar Gen Yamamoto makes sense, until it all does. A cocktail or two is served and everything clicks.
Yamamoto offers a four or six-course cocktail tasting menu (which costs roughly $50 or $65, including a seating charge, which is common in Tokyo bars) reflecting shiki, or Japanese seasonality. "I always prefer fresh," he says, which is displayed as he grates or muddles or otherwise transforms fresh fruits for nearly every drink.
His drinks, like the bar's design, are about doing more with less. Each drink is served beside a flower on a small black slate board, always in a different piece of glassware chosen to best accentuate the flavors of whatever waits within.
"The details also naturally indicate, or lead, to the best way for enjoying those cocktails," explains Yamamoto. "I designed this bar from the cocktail's style," he says, the simple but exacting approach to a cohesive experience.
He doesn't squeeze a dozen ingredients into a cocktail because he can, or because the lengthy list of housemade ingredients would be impressive to reel off to a customer. He uses only what the cocktail calls for, emphasizing the creation of a harmonized flavor which is greater than the sum of its parts.
Beyond seasonal and local ingredients, his philosophy is to let ingredients pair and build together. "I am trying to expand tastes," he says. "It's like multiplications, not additions."
Sparkling sake with fresh muddled gooseberry opens up a tasting, offering surprising complexity for two simple ingredients, and a delicate, bright beginning. It's followed by barley shochu with fresh grated and pressed granny smith apple, topped with green tea, each component elevating and advancing the others.
Sweet potato shochu is then offered with carrot and mandarins, before a Calvados-gin hybrid is served with ginger and hanayu, a yellow, somewhat yuzu-like Japanese citrus. Next comes potato shochu with milk and roasted sweet potato, topped with two types of shaved chocolate, luscious without being overbearingly rich or sweet, and finally a rewarding and refreshing hot cocktail, showcasing Yamazaki with naoshichi citrus and ume, Japanese sour plum.
The drinks at Bar Gen Yamamoto, like the bar's design, are about doing more with less. Each drink is served beside a flower on a small black slate board, in glassware chosen to best accentuate the flavors of the cocktail. (Photo: Jake Emen)
There's no menu, and throughout the day he may change what he serves based on anything from the time itself, to the weather conditions, to the reactions of customers to certain ingredients or flavors, or based on sudden inspiration or insight into a possible improvement. He may make a slight tweak or go back to something else he used previously, and when he does he says it's with an increased understanding of the "why and how" of the cocktail and how to make it.
While six cocktails in a 90-minute window might seem like boozy overload, the drinks are small, and the flavors are always refreshing and crisp. Throughout the tasting, the palate is never overloaded or burdened, the notes of each drink easily flowing into the next along a steady line of progression. You leave the experience ready for whatever else the night may offer, but at the same time, loathe to follow up all that excellence with a cheap highball down the street.
"I'm just trying to do my best always," says Yamamoto. "That's all I have." And rest assured, his best is exceptional. His drinks are deliciously vibrant, and he prepares them with a refined, artful grace, contrasting with the often flashy showmen behind some of the city's other top bars.
Bar Gen Yamamoto is as much fine art as any exclusive paint gallery or ballet. He opts for just a slightly different analogy, though: "It's like a live orchestra with everyone and everything at the bar."