"It’s not a robata concept, it’s not our take on a robata grill," Gene Kato, former chef of Japonais, explains of his upcoming Sumi Robata Bar. "It is a robata grill, as authentic as we can make it without getting into, like EPCOT territory with kimonos and ninjas," he laughs. We’re on a tour of the space for his upcoming restaurant, which at this point is still raw and consists mostly of sheetrock, but is at the point where it will suddenly come together quickly. The exquisitely finished bar top, made from a two-inch-think vertical slice of wood with all its grain and irregular edges lovingly highlighted, sits atop the bar it will shortly be anchored to; while we’re there, the first piece of the marble wall is cemented into place. To make their hoped-for New Year’s Eve opening, it will all need to happen quickly, including the always unpredictable City part. But even in this state, we can see the shape, and more importantly, how Kato’s desire for an intimate, one-on-one experience is reflected in the design.
We first go into the basement— that is, Charcoal Bar, the separate downstairs bar space which will be manned by Matthew "Choo" Lipsky (Morso, Untitled). The inspiration comes from the charcoal that goes into the robata grill, and the walls are wood that was hand-scorched by Kato, Lipsky and sous chef Justin Romine with blow torches— a very long day, they laugh. Lipsky tells us about some of the unusual ingredients he’ll be bringing in (cloudberries, anyone?), and explains that the space is designed to hold only eleven people— six at the bar and four other seats— so that it will be an intimate drinking experience with direct bartender interaction. For the same reason, he’s created a bottled cocktail program for the upstairs, so that he’s not distracted from his guests by the need to service the diners upstairs.
That leads to Kato’s explanation of the entire approach. "Usually at this point, the goal is to have bigger places— to oversee. But if you’re just overseeing a staff, you’re not elevating your skills," Kato explains. "My passion is to cook, I want to be hands-on." Sumi is designed so that it can be run in total by the three of them. On the main floor there are only two small seating areas— a small dining space and the seats at the bar— and everything is designed to offer you a view of the chef at work, including the view from Wells Street looking straight into the restaurant. Though there will be more seating in the summer, with an outdoor patio which will be designed Japanese garden-style. Even here, though, the aim is grace and spaciousness, with lots of room between guests. If you can achieve zen calm at Wells and Huron, this will be it.
The third concept in the upstairs remains the mystery— all Kato will say at this point is that it will be open for lunch. At this point it’s merely a storage space, but the large windows overlooking the street are promising… especially as snow has just started to fall, illuminated by the streetlights.
Returning downstairs, Kato points out some of the fine design details intended to present the spirit of takumi— craftsmanship aimed toward the perfection of one’s art. The screws in the handcrafted stools land right at the center of the flowers on the block print pattern adorning each side. The handles on the sliding panels behind Kato’s workspace are in the shape of chrysanthemums— barely visible to guests, but at least he’ll know they’re there. That care is what Sumi Robata Bar promises for the total guest experience when it opens at the end of this month— or early next month.