French Flirts With Japanese at Bara

November 12, 2015 10:10 am Last Updated: November 15, 2015 3:58 pm

A French–Japanese wine bar–izakaya. It’s a mouthful, but it’s a perfect description for Bara, located on the Lower East Side. There’s creativity and deliciousness aplenty at this under-the-radar spot, precisely executed by executive chef and partner Ian Alvarez.

The French and Japanese have long been fascinated by each other’s cultures. On the Japanese side, the affinity for Western culture harkens back to the mid-1800s when the first Navy ships sailed into Tokyo Bay. 

Bara is neither a fine dining establishment nor an old school bistro, but rather somewhere in between—a neo-bistro similar to the types that sprouted up in Paris, which put the focus on flavors and precise technique in a more casual setting that’s far friendlier on the wallet. 

Alvarez, who is classically trained in the French tradition, was sous-chef at Momofuku Noodle Bar and chef de cuisine at French Louie.

He attributes his fascination with Japanese cuisine to the culture’s dedication to the product, “doing something as well as you can and not hiding behind a lot of gimmicks,” he said. “And the Japanese are super open to outside influences. They make it their own—clothing, music—they put it into this amazing filter and come out with this amazing thing on the other side.” 

Alvarez feels like he’s also part of the exchange, with New York added to his own filtering process. 

Chef and partner Ian Alvarez at Bara. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Chef and partner Ian Alvarez at Bara. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Inspired Fish and More

The dishes look clean and simple—a nod to the Japanese aesthetic. Until you take a bite, it’s impossible to tell the amount of work and number of steps involved in each dish’s execution.

Mackerel tataki. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Mackerel tataki. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The Mackerel Tataki is a fabulous example ($11). Tataki is a dish of finely chopped fish, seasoned with herbs. Alvarez uses French pistou, yogurt, and juice from preserved lemons, mixing Japanese technique with French flavors. The “tartare” is then topped with deep-fried crispy rice, shaved horseradish, trout roe, and a ponzu dressing.

Chawanmushi. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Chawanmushi. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

The silky chawanmushi, a savory, steamed egg custard served here with crab salad, is classically Japanese, save for the addition of celery hearts ($8).

There’s also a spectacular whole black bass, served upright and cleverly propped up by a lemon wedged beneath the bones. It looks as though it’s swimming in a sea of sliced togarashi cucumber ($28). 

Whole black bass with rice with furikake. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Whole black bass with rice with furikake. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Whole fish by and far get one treatment at many restaurants—grilling. It’s far more interesting at Bara. Alvarez stumbled onto a Japanese tradition around New Year’s that involves salted, roasted fish. The fish is seasoned 24 hours in advance and then roasted. Alvarez found the salt penetrated and seasoned the fish all the way through, making for incredibly moist flesh and super crispy skin. A ginger-soy-sauce glaze completes it.

The presentation has its benefits. With the fish upright on its belly, the skin remains crispy on both sides. There’s no sogginess underneath and it is more accessible for a table of people who are sharing the dish.

Spicy lobster noodles. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Spicy lobster noodles. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

One of the most popular dishes is the Spicy Lobster Noodles ($24). It’s comfort food with some luxe elements. Garlic cream, fennel, and bits of crushed pistachio cling to strands of fresh, light housemade pasta; the lobster complements it wonderfully. 

The Fried Chicken ($18) is one of the few fried items on the menu. Alvarez knows his fried chicken, having made it at all the restaurants he’s worked in over the past eight years.

Bara serves a half-chicken portion with moist meat and a crispy, crackly crust that is oh-so-good. Thick homemade chili sauce carries a vinegary tang and garlicky goodness with a sweet touch. A nice deep heat comes through next, then a bite of kohlrabi slaw cools it down.  

A Natural Approach

The approach to the beverage list also draws inspiration from both cultures. The one overarching principle for the wines, though, is that they are natural—devoid of chemicals, sometimes organic or biodynamic, giving nature the agency to shape the final product.

Wine, beer, and sake at Bara. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)
Wine, beer, and sake at Bara. (Samira Bouaou/Epoch Times)

Prices by the glass range from $11 to $15 for a biodynamic L’Epicourchois Cour Cheverny Blanc 2011 from the Loire Valley.

The sake picks also lean natural. Though much sake is produced in an industrial setting these days, beverage director and general manager Kyle Storm picks sakes that were made much as they might have been hundreds of years ago. 

He favors unpasteurized, undilated sakes (like Nama Genshu Honjozo). “It’s a bit stronger, a lot more flavorful, with wild fresh flavors you don’t find in most sakes,” Storm said. The Kikusui Funaguchi ($12 for a 7-ounce can) carries tones of wild stone fruit, sometimes strawberry, and at the same time a starchy rice character. “It’s the kind of sake you can keep tasting. Every time you taste something new,” he said.

Storm and Alvarez are big fans of sour beers, so you’ll find a curated selection of brews they really love, such as a bottle of Boon Geuze Mariage Parfait for $36.

Cocktails include the Claude du Vall, with Pommeau, mescal, Carpano Antica, yuzu, and celery salt ($12). The Pommeau is a Calvados spirit, in this case a blend of both apple and pear brandy and fresh apple and pear juices—it adds a sweet touch that’s not too boozy. The yuzu adds some zing.

You can also get whiffs of France that most forget—the islands such as Guadeloupe in the French Antilles. Rum is normally distilled from molasses but “rhum agricole” is made from freshly squeezed sugar cane juice. “It smells like a sugar cane field—just like the best wine smells like the vineyard and like the earth that the vines were grown in.” He uses this rum to make a version of El Presidente—with dry vermouth and curaçao—but with cassis rather than grenadine, for a taste of Metropolitan France for good measure ($13).

Bara 
58 E. First St. (between First & Second avenues)

917-639-3197
bararestaurantnyc.com 

Hours
Tuesday–Friday 
6 p.m.–11 p.m.
Saturday 
4 p.m.–11 p.m.
Sunday 
4 p.m.–10 p.m.
Closed Mondays