An avant-garde Kyoto bartender mixes east, west, and south to perfection
by KIMBERLY HUGHES
Opening the door to Nokishita711 feels like entering a portal to a different era. Located on a backstreet off a tree-fringed canal in Japan’s ancient capital city of Kyoto, the bar is dressed in dim candlelight, antique fixtures, and sprigs of fragrant eucalyptus, simulating the feeling of being inside a forest. The idea, explains proprietor Tomoiki Sekine, is to recreate the style of a centuries-old teahouse. The tea, however, comes later. First is the main event: Sekine’s own concept, “liquid cuisine,” wherein he creates cocktails from seasonal, locally-sourced meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, plants, and even bugs.
Referring to himself as an “extractologist” rather than a mixologist, Sekine refined his bartending knowledge from his previous experience of years working as a chef. “I saw the limits of the cocktail world, and I wanted to do something innovative,” he explains. His unique cocktails are each served with a snack, which he creates using the ingredients left over from his liquid meals. This is in line with his zero-waste philosophy, as well as his belief in the importance of respecting the lives of the animals being consumed.
Guests at Sekine’s reservations-only bar can enjoy five cocktails (or mocktails) that they choose from his extensive list of 20-something offerings. Alternatively, they may entrust the selection to Sekine himself, as I did. The lineup – which rivaled a gourmet meal – began with an umami-laden cocktail of eggplant with red wine and fig-infused gin, which had been fermented overnight with black koji (yeast) and was served alongside a tiny blue corn masa taco with grilled eggplant, salsa mole, and kelp. The flavors and wafting fragrance were a delightful combination of sour and smoky.
The next four cocktails were no less elaborate: chicken liver in pheasant broth, whose rich flavor was offset by barley shochu-soaked blueberries, brandy, and cold brew coffee kvass, served with a miniscule spring roll resembling a tiny package. A lamb bone soup with apple, red wine, gin, and oolong tea-flavored kombucha, served with a spiced lamb meat pie atop a bed of edible salted dry tea leaves. Smooth chilled corn potage with soba berry, 21-year-aged saké, rum, and huitlacoche (corn smut), served with a tiny miso-accented corn rib. And finally, tepache (fermented pineapple skin) with chica morada (Peruvian purple corn) and mackerel, infused with celery vinegar and eucalyptus – an expertly-balanced flavor profile of salty, sour, fruity and herby – served with a whole wheat biscuit flecked with dry-aged natto (fermented soybeans), and sandwiching a layer of nougat glacé.
Sekine’s journey to expand the limits of cocktail culture has involved making his own vinegars and experimenting with the use of dashi (broth). “I wanted to create flavors not through sugar, but fermentation; and not through high alcohol content or ice, but through the process of extraction,” he explains. “And this is in fact the most challenging aspect. It was only through trial and error, for example, that I finally achieved the desired flavor from eggplant: first by grilling it, and then by finding the right temperature and timing for the sous vide infusion.”
Many of Sekine’s ingredients are sourced from his friends, who are hunters, herbalists, and farmers. He also regularly frequents Kyoto’s antique markets to indulge another passion: finding select pieces for his bar, both decorative and utilitarian. The walls are lined with pages from old books—a creative departure from the tea houses, which traditionally use washi (Japanese-style fibrous paper). He also uses serving vessels crafted from materials such as mudstone slate, 18th century British roof tiles, and centuries-old block stamps. When I visited, the most striking installation was an ukiyo-e print, under which sat an oversized manuscript and a bowl with lamb and inoshishi (wild boar) bones peeking out.
“I don’t want to just serve cocktails,” notes Sekine, who sports a tattoo of a snake – “the god of water in Japan”– against the backdrop of his hip-hop music playlist. “For me, it’s about getting in touch with the deeper culture of food and drink.”
Pouring a pot of Chinese-style loose-leaf tea, an elaborate and yet simple ceremonial practice that he studies under a Kyoto-based tea master, Sekine adds that he is also eager to transcend borders by welcoming overseas visitors to his bar, as well as traveling the world to engage in his trade.
In years prior, Sekine hosted pop-up events in Taipei. Earlier this summer, he collaborated with a Japanese restaurant in New York City to create cocktails based on a fusion of Japanese and U.S. ingredients. Similar plans are in the works for Portland and he eventually hopes to make it to Latin America. “There is so much happening there in terms of food culture,” he notes.
It is his website, however, that perhaps describes his philosophy best: “From Kyoto to the world, Tomoike Sekine is going to make his insane cocktails everywhere.”
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