121 N. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
SERVICE: Not only friendly and professional, the servers are deeply engaged and enthusiastic.
AMBIENCE: Hip, happening and high style. Is this Lindenhurst?
ESSENTIALS: Open 4 to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, to 10:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, wheelchair accessible, street parking and nearby municipal lot
Wow. What a way to begin the decade. Bakuto, an utterly singular new venue in Lindenhurst is going to be a tough act to follow.
Equal parts restaurant and bar, Bakuto draws its inspiration from the Japanese small-plates tradition of izakaya that centers on robata: skewered, grilled meats. But whereas sushi has run amok on Long Island and ramen noodles are having a moment, don’t expect to see carbon copies of Bakuto anytime soon. Very few restaurants possess the vision, passion and plain-old cooking chops to pull this off.
The talented team here consists of chef Zachary Rude, also executive chef and partner at Bay Shore's Verde Kitchen & Cocktails; Patrick Capellini, formerly the bar director at Babylon’s The Brixton and current titleholder of the Long Island Bartenders League cocktail competition, plus general manager Rachel Dettori and operations guy Vincent D’Eletto.
Their consummate intentionality hits you as soon as you cross the threshold of this former Quiznos sandwich shop. Every inch of the place has been thought out. The walls are aswirl with images based on the elaborate tattoos displayed bygone Japanese gamblers, the so-called bakuto. On the ceiling, white acoustical tile has been swapped out for metal chain-link panels which, in the back hallway, have been garlanded with (fake) cherry blossoms. The shelving behind the bar is crowned by a cornice of oversized ceramic Buddha and geisha cocktail mugs.
The menu is every bit as imaginative as the design. It kicks off with porgy crudo, opalescent medallions of raw fish topped with garlic (both golden fried and pickled), shiso leaf and coriander. Of the “snack” selections, I give the nod to the crispy chicken buns, steamed baos filled with chicken thighs that have been pressed for a dense and juicy texture before being panko-ed and fried and kicked up with yuzu pickle and scallions. I preferred them to the pork version, whose miso glaze quickly sogged the buns. (Bao buns, God love them, have all the structural integrity of Wonder Bread.)
The center of the menu, and where Bakuto shines brightest, belongs to the delectable skewers cooked over an infrared grill imported from Japan. The duck meatball “tsukune” was like a lush poultry kofte. The meaty-tender tilefish, brushed with miso-sake-ginger, was one of the best seafood bites I've had in a year. Impossibly sweet scallops got a boost from charred shishito peppers. A special commendation is in order for the wings, grilled not fried (which requires much more skill) and, unlike so many Western renditions of Asian food, not reliant on syrupy sweetness, only the balance of that holy trinity of soy, garlic and sesame.
The only disappointing robata was the maitake (aka hen of the woods) mushroom which for all its size and impressive frills, has very little flavor and was drowned out by its kumquat garnish. (No doubt that Japanese stalwart shiitake could have withstood the treatment better.)
Chef Rude is no less passionate about noodles than skewers. He uses high-quality Sun-brand noodles for his pork ramen and sears his slices of chashu pork (braised belly) to tighten the texture and render out some of the fat. I found the broth overly sweet but you probably won’t.
The big noodle production here is the udon, which Rude makes, laboriously, in house and results in the fattest, chewiest udon I have ever had. Seriously, you practically need a knife and fork to eat one. A clump of them lurks in a bowl of crazy-rich spicy beef-garlic broth punctuated by cubes of brisket that walk the line between falling apart and maintaining their shape, and I feel guilty opining that a thinner, less self-important noodle, like ramen, would be a better match for the dish.
If you have a choice of seats, go for the bar where you can watch the open kitchen and engage Capellini and his team in a discussion of their ambitious and unique bar program. Every cocktail I tried was delicious. And I'd particularly recommend the “jasmine,” a smooth, frighteningly drinkable blend of gin, brandy, jasmine, lemon, salted plum and bubbles — even if you never thought you'd enjoy sipping through a straw lodged in the paw of a smiling ceramic kitty.