Interview with a Game-Changing Mixologist
Honored as American Bartender of the Year at 2011’s Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, Kenta Goto helped put New York City’s cocktail hotspot Pegu Club on the map. If that’s not enough evidence that the Tokyo transplant is an expert barman, just visit his new, cool drinking den in the city’s Lower East Side, Bar Goto.
The 40-seat, amber-hued oasis is Goto’s first solo project, decorated with framed fabric inspired by his grandmother’s kimono. At Goto, less is more, an approach that results in crisp, simple and refreshing cocktails. They rely on few ingredients and a subtly stylish presentation to deliver big results.
All priced at $15, the drinks nicely complement Japanese snacks like Miso wings, octopus sashimi with seaweed chili and savory cabbage pancakes. There’s also beer, wine and, of course, saké.
Wine Enthusiast sat down with Goto to discuss his new venture and how his upbringing in Tokyo inspires his cocktails. Plus, we scored recipes for his sparkling wine and Suze apéritif, Golden Chrysanthemum, and his saké and Tequila cocktail, the Far East Side.
How does being born and raised in Tokyo influence your work behind the bar?
I like things to be organized. It’s how I was raised by my parents, who both ran their own businesses, and it’s something that has never left me, even after moving to New York City. For me, it was really great being able to design the bar at Bar Goto from scratch. Everything is placed exactly where it should be, so that the bartenders can stay organized and work quickly.
You really made a name for yourself while working at Pegu Club. What’s the most important thing you learned while working there?
To start with, the product must be good, however, it’s not all about that. Interaction with the customers is important. More specifically, the right amount of interaction. Many customers come in not only wanting cocktails, but also wanting some conversation. As bartenders, we need to be aware of what each customer wants, so that we can provide a great overall experience.
Who or what inspires you?
Travel, cooking, my parents and my fiancé.
What are you aiming for conceptually with Bar Goto?
The concept is a combination of two things that you don’t always see together, cocktails and comfort Japanese food. My vision is for Bar Goto to be somewhere between a casual cocktail bar and a high-end izakaya [an casual Japanese drinking den]. I want the vibe to be old and elegant Japan meets Lower East Side, New York City.
How would you describe the cocktail menu?
American classic cocktails with a modern Japanese twist. Most of the drinks on the menu have some sort of Japanese influence.
What’s the standout feature that makes your bar different from any other?
We practice Omotenashi—which means to anticipate customers’ needs, and to provide what they want before they ask you for it. From the bar operation perspective, we do this by thinking about what we can do to make a moment more memorable for a guest. For example, we quietly remember a guest’s birthday and go buy a cake, or something that’s just right for the guest. That’s more memorable than just giving away a round of Tequila shots.
Another example, you can just put a beverage napkin on a drink while a guest steps out to smoke to save the seat, but it’s a bit more thoughtful if, in addition to saving the seat, you keep the drink in the fridge to keep it cold until the guest comes back. The key is that you do these things in a subtle way. If it looks too obvious, that defeats the purpose.
What’s your No. 1 tip for every home bartender?
Most importantly, have fun! If you’re someone who wants to be good at making cocktails, then I would suggest that you follow the recipe the first time, or first few times, you make something. Once you’re comfortable, take a few minutes to think about why the recipe is made that way, and then think about what, if anything, you might do to make it better for your taste. I would also recommend the cocktail books, The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail, written by Dale DeGroff.
What would you say is the spirit of the moment?
What cocktail trend would you like to see disappear?
Crisp, simple and supremely refreshing, this bubbly-based apéritif, created by Kenta Goto, relies on few ingredients and a subtly stylish presentation to deliver big results.
“It glows and has complex flavors, but it’s easy to make at home,” he says. So easy, we bet you’ll make seconds.
- ¾ ounce Suze
- 1 ounce Clear Creek Pear Liqueur
- 2 dashes pear brandy
- 1½ ounces dry sparkling wine
- Lemon twist, for garnish
Combine Suze, pear liqueur and pear brandy in a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake lightly, and strain into a coupe glass. Top with sparkling wine and garnish with a lemon twist.
Kenta Goto, of acclaimed Bar Goto on New York City’s Lower East Side, relied on his upbringing in Tokyo to inspire this saké and Tequila cocktail.
- 2 shiso leaves, muddled
- 2 ounces Junmai saké
- ⅔ ounce St-Germain
- ½ ounce blanco Tequila
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 2 dashes Yuzu bitters
Muddle shiso leaves in a mixing glass. Add remaining ingredients with ice, and stir. Double-strain into a cocktail glass.
- 1Golden Chrysanthemum
- 2Far East Side