For the sake of saké

And now for something completely different.

Nana, or number seven, cocktail.
Nana, or number seven, cocktail.

A Japanese joint that eschews sushi — thank God, because me, cream cheese and avocado do not a happy threesome make — and focuses on saké and soju cocktails. In Buenos Aires. Not the first city you think of when it comes to a prevalent Asian culture…

In addition, this isn’t your usual kind of porteño Asian restaurant where owning the correct cookbook maketh you a sushiman.

No, Kiboo is nisei-owned, that’s to say by Adrián Ishii, second-generation Japanese, given that his parents (chef father and cook mother) migrated to Argentina. And his recently opened space lays the claim to be Argentina’s first (and only) saké bar.

After demolishing some crappy Irish bar that no one had ever heard of, Kiboo rose from the ashes to take on a prime piece of Honduras real estate. With just an illuminated logo on a black façade marking the spot, it’s dead easy to miss: I did in fact walk straight past it.

The doorman denotes the swish ambience that awaits; while the waiting area is a little bare, the idea is to turn it into a saké sampling corner while you wait for a table. You can perch at the bar for one of Esteban Iglesias’ creations; dine on the stylish island next to the waterfall (that’s right readers, H20 is a-flowing); hang out at the mezzanine adorned with low tables; or best of all, on spring’s return, head up the rather cool terrace. There’s a lot going on behind that ebony façade…

Obviously in this Argentine day and age, it’s a tricky matter to obtain imported booze, so Kiboo is using saké (fermented rice wine from Japan) and soju (distilled rice wine from Korea) that can be easily obtained from Chinatown. There is, however, an array of other rice juices such as saké ozeki jumbo and jinro gold on the bar’s top shelf that costs extra to sample.

Kiboo sake bar.
Kiboo sake bar.

While other cocktails such as Mojito and Bloody Mary are naturally available, the stars of the show are the saké and soju drinks. Named one to eight in Japanese (but written in Latin letters not characters, so you can actually get your tongue around the language), my first tipple was Go (95 pesos), or number five, made with saké. Green, how I loved you green. This concoction brought together unexpected flavours such as aloe vera juice, lime and lemongrass syrup, kiwi fruit and cucumber, refreshing, almost healing. Superb, The cuke on a toothpick was an awkward addition when it came to drinking, so I pulled it off and shoved it into this luscious jungle juice. Well priced, as well, because cocktails — and elaborate ones — often soar above the 100-peso mark.

Nana, or number seven, was another hit, and not least because of its cute tea service presentation. Sporting gin sake, gyokuro green tea, lemongrass and ginger syrup plus some unnamed Japanese citrus, this was another delicate and refreshing drink (95 pesos).

Ni (number two) (95 pesos), meanwhile, peaked once the lychee fused with the maehwasu Korean plum liqueur, about 40 minutes after reaching the table.

The interesting twist at Kiboo is the decision to focus on drinks, rather than the grub, but that’s not to say the food lets the side down, far from it.

Nibbles are for sharing, and I particularly enjoyed yaki tori (80 pesos), chicken marinated in soy sauce, honey, sake and ginger, that came with the added bonus of three very good sauces. When it came down to mayo with a bite, we’re talking wasabi, not wuss-abi; the chilli and passion fruit vinegar had an active kick; and the sesame and soy sauce dip was abundant in flavour.

The pan-fried, bite-size gyoza (90 pesos) stuffed with prawn, were dainty and delicious, though a little slippery to grab with the chopsticks, and worked well with the aforementioned dips. I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to these dumplings, though, and would have enjoyed a more classic soy sauce with spring onion and red pepper flakes thrown into the mix.

As for starters, fried ika (85 pesos) or baby squid were also tasty, though the rice flour made them a little dry, but it was a good size portion for sharing.

Main courses vary between 170 pesos and 235 pesos, and include magret of duck teamed with tamarind and smoked green tea jelly, as well as mature rib-eye marinated in garlic oil, saké, fresh herbs and lime and supported by fried mandioc and kimchi.

Sadly I didn’t try the fermented veggies this time, but I did sample pork ribs lacquered in Ichiban black beer (170 pesos), served atop roasted pineapple with sticky rice. While the pork was tender, falling off the bone without any effort, I wasn’t a fan of the pineapple which didn’t work with the gooey sauce, not for me.

As for dessert, the ginger ice-cream topped with candied ginger crystals was incredible. Though it was one half of the chocolate pudding (85 pesos), it shone.

Other desserts include lychee panna cotta that sprung to life with mango ragout (80 pesos), and a green tea crème brûlée (75 pesos) that I’d like to try another time.

The space itself comprises various layers, so for romance dine on the ground floor on the island next to the waterfall or flames, depending on the season.

Groups of buddies will appreciate the low tables on the mezzanine, while summer will turn the terrace into a veritable hot spot.

Two focal points outdoors include a cool piece of street art featuring a Japanese lady and a vertical garden; whoever steps into the designated DJ space will doubtless warm things up.

Honduras 5248, Palermo Soho
Tel: 3831-2456
8pm-3am, Tuesday-Sunday

Buenos Aires Herald, 28 June, 2015

Check out last week’s Wining On piece, about La Pampa On The Map.

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