Bar None: New Japanese Spot Baru Feels Bigger Than Cincinnati

This playful izakaya’s offerings pair perfectly with its expansive drink menu.
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PHOTO BY JEREMY KRAMER

“It reminds me of Paris!” my German dining companion exclaimed, as we sipped cocktails and swapped small plates at Baru, the sleek izakaya in the former MidiCi space. Criminally, I’ve never been to the City of Light, and this Japanese-inspired menu is miles away from French fare, but I knew what she meant. Perhaps it’s the light itself—the early evening glow filtering through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Or it could have been the sophisticated-yet-playful space. Giant red tigers all but pounce from the walls behind the massive bar. The lights above the bar suspended from the ceiling rise, fall, and change colors in time to an R&B soundtrack. It certainly didn’t hurt that the restaurant was starting to fill up with a diverse group of diners, stylishly clad and brimming with the joie de vivre of cocktail hour revelers. Most likely, it was some rare combination of all of the above. Baru buzzes with the energy of a city much bigger than Cincinnati. I imagine it’s what owner Tyler Wogenstahl had in mind when he opened the restaurant.

Bar dining is prioritized here; this is food that’s meant to be enjoyed alongside the eclectic drinks list. That’s why Wogenstahl chose the izakaya concept, drawing influence from the laid-back Japanese gastropubs where food and drink go hand in hand. To flesh out the menu, he turned to Robert Grace, a Nashville chef he’d previously worked with through his hospitality management company, Further Concepts and Investors. Grace developed the fledgling izakaya’s food and cocktail menus, which work remarkably well, together or apart.

The menu is broken down into drinks, sushi, “small plates,” “plates,” sides, and ishiyaki. Naturally, we start with cocktails. The options are clever, with both basic and eclectic offerings like the Japanese Highball (which uses Japanese whiskey), the Sake-tini, and the sweetly spicy Wasabi Margarita.

The Tuna, Tuna, Tuna roll features a trio of escolar, ahi, and spicy tuna with tempura crunch, sriracha, and cilantro. // PHOTO BY JEREMY KRAMER

Sushi came next, and it didn’t disappoint. Sushi chef Samson Kim’s offerings are—like the rest of the menu—fun and funky. You won’t find pages of sushi rolls here: The sushi menu is varied, but concise. And, happily, nigiri gets as much attention as the aforementioned rolls. We went with the Gravlax Nigiri, cured salmon atop rice soaked in yuzu (a tangy Japanese citrus fruit) juice. The salmon hinted at smoky lox, with a little welcome heat from a yuzu/chili paste.

The Tuna, Tuna, Tuna roll features a trio of ahi tuna, spicy tuna, and escolar (an oily mackerel that is sometimes marketed as “white tuna”). While the ahi and spicy tuna brought bold flavors, the escolar was the odd fish out in both flavor and name. But the highlight of the sushi menu was the quail egg nigiri—three pieces of nigiri topped with soy pearls, a bright, yellow fish roe called tobiko, and a rich quail egg. The thick, viscous quail egg serves as a slightly sweet sauce while the tobiko brings the dish from air to briny sea. In keeping with the raw theme, I took a chance on the Wagyu Tartar, with its soy-cured egg yolk and clever assortment of rice and nori crackers for dipping into the velvety meat. It was a hit. And while tartar is often a prestige dish—decadent and eye-catching, but rarely ordered—at Baru it is a top seller. Its popularity affirms Baru’s decision to put bolder, riskier dishes front and center.

Even the restaurant’s “safer” dishes have a slight twist that inches them out of the familiar. Take the Chicken Katsu entrée. It seems like the sort of dish intended to give raw meat and quail egg-averse diners something to fall back to, but it comes with an unagi (eel) sauce mustard that you’ll either want to slather on the perfectly breaded chicken or down like one of Baru’s many cocktails.

Wagyu ishiyaki is cooked on a stone plate and paired with various sauces. // PHOTO BY JEREMY KRAMER

If sushi got the party going, the theatrical ishiyaki kicked it into high gear. The term refers to dishes that diners grill tableside on a hot stone. We went with the Sakura Wagyu, sourced from Ohio’s own Sakura Farms. At $40 for a few thin strips of steak, this DIY show is a steep ticket, but the quality of the steak is in line with the price. The wagyu was tender and flavorful enough to stand up on its own, but a pinch each of the accompanying sea salt and togarashi (a smoky seasoning blend made from dried chilies) will enhance the flavors even further.

For all its convivial buzz, Baru is also a spot where solo diners can enjoy a few peaceful bar-side bites. When I went back alone, I skipped the sushi menu, but the Crispy Rice Spicy Tuna from the small plates portion of the menu brought the same level of freshness and quality. The tuna is a soft tartar that nearly melts on the tongue, with seared rice and sesame seeds for the perfect textural contrast.

By far, the seared scallops entrée was the highlight of the entire assignment. Served alongside a slurpable nest of soba noodles, the plump, toasted scallops get a hint of sweetness from a delightful maple soy sauce. I was grateful that I didn’t have to share. Sometimes, it pays to dine alone.

It’s shocking that Baru operates with such flair and precision, considering how quickly it all came together. The restaurant went from conception to opening in a mere eight months. And Further Concepts is already at work on another downtown spot: an all-day to late-night sports bar called Vintage, slated to open in The Foundry next spring. With Grace helming the menu and Wogenstahl handling the design, I’m sure I’ll be bringing my family there the next time they’re in town.

Baru, 595 Race St., downtown, (513) 246-0150, barusushi.com

Hours: Tues–Thurs 4–11 p.m., Fri & Sat 4 p.m.–midnight

Prices: $6 (Sticky Rice)—$40 (American Wagyu Ishiyaki)

The Takeaway: Sophisticated izakaya further enlivens downtown dining.

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