Baku eats dreams. Mainly bad ones, sometimes good ones. In Japanese folklore, children can summon Baku, a tapir-like chimera (a fictional animal comprised of parts from different animals), to devour their nightmares. But if the Baku stays too long, he may also devour life ambitions and hopeful wishes as well.
Baku appears in Pokemon, anime, graphic novels, and now this shy creature also resides in Charlotte, as a stunning 200-seat Japanese-themed restaurant in SouthPark. Baku is strictly about the food and the presentation, and maybe the drinks, which include a full-blown sake list and an evolving roster of handcrafted cocktails.
The interior is a restrained natural palette of browns and muted tones punctuated here and there with metal objects, paintings and pottery. Japanese and English proverbs decorate the floors and stairs. Paper parasols float from the ceiling of the second-floor lounge, and the floor is reclaimed wood from a 150-year-old bourbon distillery. Baku does not offer a peaceful meditative courtyard or burbling fountains. Be prepared for high energy.
Baku signature dishes are prepared on the robata, a grill known for incredible heat, up to 1,000 degrees. To achieve this high heat level, only imported bincho, a Japanese compressed oak charcoal, is used. Marinades do not burn at these temperatures; rather, they caramelize on the protein. The first small plates we sampled included a brilliant skewer of gochujang and miso glaze bonded to a pork belly and sided with artisan pottery filled with kimchi. On another plate, succulent plump diver scallops balanced the honeyed ying of plum vincotto to the yang of a citrusy yuzo sauce. Mmmm.
Scattered around the menu are two of the haute trinity of Japanese proteins: Kobe (Wagyu) beef and Kurobuta (Berkshire) pork. (The third, Jidori chicken, a trademarked crossbreeding of an American Rhode Island Red and a Hinaidori, is not yet on the roster.) Kurobuta is featured again with sweet onion in a clutch of dumplings. We then picked our way through the transcendently tender quail starter. Although the dishes here are intended to be communal, you may end up eating more than your share.
Baku doesn't offer an esoteric range of sushi and sashimi — no fugu — and some maki rolls are strictly vegetarian. Bluefin tuna, a coveted and endangered delicacy, stars in a roll with perfect rice lacquered with yuzu, while a decadent slick of fatty salmon belly shines as nigiri. Tempura tiger prawns with tentsuyu sauce arrive with a sake threesome: one bubbly, one floral, one dry.
The sweetly crisped grilled duck is a thing of beauty, with its accompanying splash of persimmon ramped up with nutmeg. But the uni (sea urchin) wins for dramatic presentation. Nesting on a bright green leaf supported by strands of white daikon and chipped ice, the bright orange slabs of uni create a tableau complete with quail egg, petals and a large block of ice. The kitchen's artistry in food is only matched by the flavors coaxed from each item.
Executive chef Michael Shortino, a third generation chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, heads up Baku's crew. Owner Steve Houraney, of Kazba nightclub, brought Shortino to Charlotte from Arizona, where he made his reputation running the kitchen for London-based Roka Akor, a contemporary robata restaurant. Also in the kitchen is Itamae Tsuyoshi Ono, a veteran of both AZN Azian Cuizine and Nikko Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar, who has consistently demonstrated his own highly particular vision of modern sushi. Chef Anoosh Shariat, formerly of Mez, is the consulting culinary partner. Unfortunately, only glimpses into the kitchen are offered; there is no sushi bar.
Desserts might be an afterthought in many Japanese restaurants, but not here. Pastry chef Kaitlyn Rogers produces ethereal desserts as vividly luscious as they are flavorful. Her delicate yuzu tart with billowing puffs of toasted jasmine meringue and plum wine ice cream is pretty to look at and delicious to eat.
The atmosphere can be disrupted by occasional glitches in service. Some servers exude over-the-top professionalism and are admirably well-versed in their chef's intricate dishes. A few, however, have a no-diner-left-behind attitude: "This is a hot towel to clean your hands." Wow. OK — so Baku is not polished, a few bad dreams left to consume.
But Baku is ambitious. This is no sushi-ya. Baku is much more. And the prices are not shy. As one dining companion quipped as he checked out the prices on the menu, "I guess the recession really is over."