by Michael J. Solender • images courtesy Baku
Less is usually more in the Japanese restaurant kitchen. From tiny yakitorias and roadside ramen shops to tempura palaces or the most intimate kai seki tea houses, the country’s most accomplished chefs know clean, unfettered culinary creations allow the finest ingredients to prominently shine.
This practice is on full display at Charlotte’s Baku, the gleaming SouthPark bagatelle that fully captures the essence of Japanese cuisine in an inspired pairing of Robata-style grill and omakase sushi service.
Serial Charlotte restaurateur Birdie Yang added Baku to his portfolio in September of 2016. Yang is well known in Charlotte for top quality sushi and authentic Japanese fare featured at Yama Asian Fusion at Morrocroft Shopping Center, Plaza Midwood’s noodle-centric Yama Izikaya, and the just opened Yama, in South Charlotte’s Waverly.
“We’re unique in Charlotte,” says Yang, trying to ignore his perpetually buzzing cell phone. “We have a New York City-style and feel, with the highest quality product, service, and experience. The shared small plates, at most a bite or two, and gloriously presented on stunning ceramic-ware, are something regulars have come to appreciate and new guests are intrigued by.”
Bincho-tan Charcoal Robata Grill
Simplicity in approach and menu should not imply lack of sophistication, however, as Baku brings a nuanced and deeply-experienced touch to both. Artful presentation and service elevates the dining experience here among the highest levels in the city.
Honoring tradition, Baku’s signature Robata grill employs organic Bincho-tan charcoal, a super-hot burning white charcoal from special oak trees is found in Japan’s Wakayama Prefecture. It’s prized for a long-burn period, high temperatures, and the aromatic smokiness it imparts.
The 800- to 1000-degree heated coals provide instant sear and a wisp of terre noirre to menu stars such as Chilean Sea Bass lightly glazed with sweet soy and dusted with green-tea finishing salt, Diver Scallops kissed with soy plum vin cotto, dabbed with tart/sweet yuzu (Japanese citrus) mayo and served with the Japanese “salt plum” umeboshi, and Tiger Shrimp with sesame ginger and sweet chili.
Beef eaters are sure to rejoice in finding the rare Miyazaki beef on the menu. The Japanese purebred Wagyu is prized for its intense marbling, fork-tenderness, and velvety richness. Three perfectly rare slices served alongside a medley of Erigini (King Oyster) mushrooms were fully satisfying and exemplified Baku’s minimalist approach.
Yang’s culinary prowess has been honed by decades of traditional Japanese-style culinary training and brought to various fine dining establishments in New York City prior to moving to Charlotte. Strong relationships with suppliers place him atop the list of rarified restaurant owners with easy access to the ocean’s best bounty.
“I have a 19-year relationship with New York Fish House, a top broker who only supplies two restaurants outside of New York City ... we are one of them,” says Yang, noting his fish comes in twice weekly via air cargo direct from the source.
Guests enjoy the most-prized tuna—Bluefin from Spanish waters, Yellowtail and Bigeye from Japan— in addition to the freshest Amberjack, octopus, squid, and prized Bafan uni, the smallest and most delicate sea urchin, briny and popping with flavor.
With ever-changing fresh seafood selections, Baku’s sushi menu supplements staples like their house-smoked salmon cured with chili peppers and sugar, Toro, and Maguro with whatever is unique and available.
Rather than cause trepidation for Baku guests, however, this “surprise” element to the menu is one that is heartily welcomed and embraced. More than 25 percent of Baku’s diners put themselves in the hands of the chef, choosing omakese, or chef’s choice, for their sushi dining, according to Yang.
A seat at the sushi-bar connects diners with two of Charlotte’s most accomplished sushi chefs. Twin sons of different mothers, Tshering Dorgi and Maik Jiang love nothing more than exercising their handicraft and receiving instant feedback from their patrons.
“Baku exceeds most all sushi restaurants in New York City in terms of quality,” says Dorji, an accomplished master who worked for more than a decade in the Big Apple.
A Tuesday in late-September found Dorji and Jiang creating a too-many-to-count series of small plates for this particular diner. The menu included tuna avocado salad dressed with yuzu mayo and nestled amidst fresh edamame, seared soy mirin and dashi-glazed octopus with pickled asparagus, Yellowtail with spicy yuzu soy dipping sauce, and cucumber spiral, soy-glazed sea bass with crispy rice cakes. A steamed savory egg custard—Chawanmushi with crab, shrimp, and mushroom—and perfect one-bite nigiri Amberjack, Toro, squid, and uni. Sushi rice at Baku is the flavorful Tamanishiki-brand revered for retaining a higher moisture content than Western counterparts.
Dessert was an insanely indulgent combination of house-made Bourbon ice-cream, a luxuriant dark-chocolate mousse, and an ethereal cinnamon beignet.
Yang was on hand with some special Sake pours. An Advanced Sake Professional (ASP) certification by the Sake Education Council makes him one of a handful of U.S.-based Level II Sake Professionals. Guests at Baku can enjoy from more than 70 varieties of sake, each with a story to tell and a special dish with which to pair.
“Experiencing fine Sake is every bit as pleasurable and nuanced as tasting fine wines,” says Yang, whose designation is akin to that of a master wine sommelier. “The sake-making process is more like brewing beer than making wine,” Yang explains. “The primary ingredients for sake are rice and water, yet the flavor profiles and variety you’ll find are infinite.”
Baku is the total package, with one the most beautiful dining rooms in the city. Their upstairs lounge is more relaxed and a great stop after work for a specialty cocktail and a chat with friends old and new.
A visit to Baku is one to be savored. Put your hands in those of the chef and let them work their magic. Loosely translated from Japanese, Baku means “commands esteem.” SouthPark’s Baku does just that.
4515 Sharon Road • Charlotte
704.817.7173 • baku-restaurant.com
by Michael J. Solender • images courtesy Baku
article and images by Courtney Matinata
Where can you relish in a plate of Bubble & Squeak, a traditional English breakfast any day of the week, a 20-ounce Smithwick’s, and soccer on every TV? There’s only one answer, and it’s Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub in the heart of beloved South End.
For those who have been longstanding dwellers of our growing city, you may know that Big Ben hasn’t always held a spot off of South Boulevard. David Harris, who has 25 successful years in the pub business under his belt, first opened Big Ben’s original location with wife, Paula Casey, in a historic Myers Park property off Providence Road back in 2007. Gaining an instant fan base with its unique and authentic offerings, Big Ben became a local favorite.
With only four years in the books, an unfortunate fire to the building resulted in the restaurant relocating in 2010, but steadfast for success, the team wasted no time rising from the ashes. They rebuilt the pub in its current home of Atherton Mill within the very same year. Now a decade-long member of the Charlotte community, Big Ben continues to draw in locals and visitors alike by way of a cozy, laid back environment and a traditional English aura that everyone can’t help but love.
Harris, himself, is English, and with this foundation comes longstanding family recipes that he just couldn’t wait to share with the Queen City. Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub, named after the famous clock tower in London, brings you all the tastes, vibes, and traditional terms of England that are hard to come by within our Southern surroundings. In fact, you’ll feel as if you’ve been plopped down in a small and intimate local saloon among the outskirts of London. “That’s always the focus,” shares Casey on the atmosphere you’ll encounter here. “We’re as close as you’re going to find.”
When posting up at a pub table, it’s impossible for your eyes not to wander over the interior setting. Flags drop from the ceiling overhead, and old world décor (some of which was salvaged from the original location) fills the worn brick walls, while a big screen displays the day’s matches. A long wooden bar on one end displays an eclectic mix of British signs and over 20 taps—with both imported beers and your local craft favorites—separated off by a vintage lace curtain enveloping the area with a touch of hominess.
During my recent visit, I got to sit down with Head Chef and General Manager Marcus Hart, who has been with the team since the very beginning. He knows the menu’s details inside and out, as well as the stories behind every tradition. You’ll uncover everything from English staples like Cottage Pie and Bangers & Mash to hard-to-find brews such as Boddingtons, making dining here the perfect switch-up to your after work routine. Each dish is stock full of flavor, and trust me when I say that the size of the helpings here is equally impressive.
I recommend first warming up your taste buds with a mouthwatering starter like the sausage rolls, or a must-try British favorite: the Scotch Egg, a hard-boiled egg inside a banger (English herbed sausage) and then deep fried. It’s served up with a sweet and tangy English chutney that
perfectly complements the crispy outer shell.
Now it’s time to narrow down the entrée section, and the Fish & Chips is definitely the crowd favorite here. Many customers come in with the sole purpose of getting their hands on this haddock filet, beer battered to perfection and served up with French fries, a wally (pickle), and a delicious house-made tartar sauce. From there you can add your own lemon, malt vinegar, you name it, to complete your flavor finish. (The fish serving takes up the whole plate, so make sure to bring your appetite!)
If you’re interested in indulging in a traditional English pasty, you can’t go wrong with any of the featured picks. All are made in house daily, and whether you opt for the Shepard’s Pie (made with ground lamb) or prefer Cottage Pie (the ground beef version), you won’t be disappointed.
My current craving is the Tin Miner’s Cornish Pasty—a comfort food collaboration that had me wanting to gobble up every last bite of the massive portion. This English dish originated in the mines to provide everything one would need for a meal in a single serving, in a shape that could easily be eaten without cutlery. Big Ben has kept with the custom, featuring a buttery and flaky puff pastry shell packed full of flavor with juicy minced ground beef cooked up in savory gravy, blended with carrots and peas, and layered with creamy mashed potatoes.
When it comes to deciding which side to pair with your main dish, there are 10 excellent choices. But my tip: swap out your side for a Bubble & Squeak (you can find this in the appetizer section). This particular dish was formed back in the day to utilize leftover trimmings such as minced vegetables and potatoes, and it’s named after the sound it makes when being fried up like a potato cake. Big Ben’s version blends sautéed cabbage with mashed potatoes, making for a unique and enticing supplement to any entrée.
If you’re not looking to sway too far away from your typical lunch habits, you can always stick with the tasty Palace Burger (add the English bacon if you want to claim you’re a tad bit British), or choose from one of the menu’s nine salad selections. If you’re a foodie who always finds yourself counting down to the weekend for a big brunch, Big Ben has you covered in that category as well, serving up breakfast every day until 2pm. We recommend basking in the Full English Breakfast, a plate complete with eight different items including eggs, an English banger, English bacon, and more.
Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner you’ve devoured, dessert should never be passed up when there’s Bread and Butter Pudding up for grabs. Layers of strawberry preserves and golden raisins rest in between dense layers of baked bread topped with pudding and whipped cream, making this treat a finale that is both delicate and decadent, and undeniably delicious.
Grab your mates; take a much-needed break from your work schedule, and cheers to an upcoming week of fun events like trivia on Tuesdays, live music on Fridays, and Extreme Music Bingo on Saturdays. A view of the Rail Trail makes Big Ben’s patio an ideal spot to enjoy the evening happy hour deals, and the recent sponsorship of the Charlotte Barbarians Rugby Club offers even more reason to become a regular. So slow down and settle in for an afternoon of adventure abroad—one that isn’t even a plane ride away.
Big Ben British Restaurant & Pub
2000 South Boulevard #150 • Charlotte, NC