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Friday, Feb. 4, 2011
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Where there's smoke, there's BBQ and beer
The Celebration Ale was flowing and foaming down in Yokohama last month, and for a very good reason. Baird Brewing, one of our favorite small-scale craft-beer producers in all of Japan, has been marking its 10th year in business. And it's done it in style, by opening its newest and best pub to date.
The Bashamichi Taproom is the fourth in the growing stable of Baird venues, and the third in the greater Tokyo region (the original Taproom is in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, where all the beer is brewed). But this new venture is very different to any of those that came before.
Instead of being hidden away on an upper floor inside some anonymous edifice — as the Naka-Meguro branch is — this Taproom occupies the whole of a freestanding three-story building. Built 40 years ago, the premises have a character all their own.
On the ground floor is the bar. At this nicely curving counter, you can sit and contemplate the 20-plus taps from which the beer is dispensed. They're all on draft, all different — from lighter lagers to hoppy, full-bodied ales to wickedly dark stouts — and, save for a couple of imported guest ales, all produced by Baird.
Up a narrow flight of stairs is a spacious lounge area with hand-carpentered tables, large windows, a small area that would be perfect for live music (that's planned, though not yet up and running) and even a darts alcove. There is also a third-floor open-air terrace that's going to be much in demand once the weather warms up.
But it is not the building itself that makes this place special and noteworthy, nor the beer, fine as that is. It's the food menu: This is the first place in Japan to serve a full-scale, honest-to-goodness, down-home American barbecue. And, as your nostrils will confirm as soon as you walk through the door, it's great.
Barbecue — like ramen, pizza and, indeed, craft beer — is one of those things that a lot of people hold very close to their hearts and have very pronounced opinions on. It's either right or it ain't. Here in Bashamichi, it's definitely done right.
Not convinced? We were dubious at first too, so we started with the Sampler Plate (¥700). It comprised a chunk of chicken on the bone, complete with a nice glaze; a few cuts of tender pork; and a couple of slices of beef brisket, perfectly tender and still with a pink hue to the meat.
We were certainly impressed, but hardly satisfied. As a nibble to go with a pint it was fine, but it left us wanting more. We could have gone back and ordered the Combo Platter (¥1,200; the same three meats but in larger portions). But there was plenty more to discover — such as the ribs (¥700).
They're wonderful. The glaze is rich, shiny, almost caramelized, and the meat underneath has a lovely smoked quality, with a great chewy texture that makes you want to gnaw all the way down, leaving the bone bare.
By this point we were believers. And we wanted to sample everything else on the menu. The next step had to be one of the Fat Boy ribs (also ¥700). Sourced locally in Japan — the regular ribs are from U.S. hogs — it's a massive bone, like a miniature monolith on your plate, and a lot richer and fattier. If you've never tasted a real-deal American BBQ before, be prepared to be amazed. If you have, well, you should have no complaints.
So how does it all get to taste so good? The first reason is the smoking oven, a magnificent, state-of-the-barbecue-art red machine that was shipped over from Mesquite, Texas, heart of the cattle country, and which now sits proudly at the back of the kitchen. The second is Chuck Morrow, the Taproom's manager and in-house barbecue pit master.
Chuck, as he is known to one and all, was actually born in Yokohama, though he's spent most of his working life in the States. He returned three years ago, and it was through a shared love of home-brewed artisan beer that he hooked up with brewmaster Bryan Baird.
Chuck is remarkably open about his barbecue process. He knows that when it comes down to it, there is no substitute for experience. And he has decades of it, living and working in many prime U.S. barbecue regions. Ask him and he'll say there is no secret, it's just a case of "low and slow."
That means trimming and seasoning the meat the night before, then putting it in the oven to smoke at around 100 degrees Celsius for as long as 12 hours. It means using domestic sakura cherry wood to give the meat that extra depth of flavor. And it means grilling the ribs and chicken over a charcoal pit to finish them off and give them that brilliant glaze. "If we run out, that's it," says Chuck. "There are no shortcuts with the BBQ process."
He also prepares all his own BBQ sauces. There are usually three or four on the go, including spicy Texas, just perfect with that brisket; tangy Mustard, a good match with the pork; and full-bodied Red, the very same sauce that gets slathered on the ribs and chicken.
The side dishes, such as coleslaw, potato salad and, best of the lot, savory Texas beans, are made from scratch and also prepared low and slow. In deference to beer enthusiasts who are noncarnivores, Chuck cooks his pinto beans without using bacon; he also offers vegetarian pizza and baked "mac and cheese."
It's early days yet, and there are likely to be plenty of additions to the menu. Chuck is keen to introduce other aspects of Southern U.S. comfort food, such as Andouille sausage, gumbo and other goodies from the canon of Louisiana Creole cuisine.
There's just one refinement that was much needed in its first week — and hopefully will be in place by now. Much as we love the wonderful meaty, smoky aroma that permeates the premises, we'd rather not take it home with us in our hair and clothes. Once the improved venting is installed, the Bashamichi Taproom should be just about perfect. Now, how about another one? In Tokyo this time, please.