SouthPark’s Baku Is a Cultural Dining Journey to Be Savored
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