How Kenta Goto Opened One of NYC’s Most Unique New Cocktail Bars

Goto, at his namesake bar.
Goto, at his namesake bar. Photo: Melissa Hom

Many of New York’s most famous bartenders tend to mix drinks while simultaneously stoking their rock-star reputations. But during his seven-year stint at Pegu Club, Kenta Goto kept his head down, did the work, and turned out expert cocktails with a quiet humility. In this way, he developed a loyal following, one that followed him to his own Bar Goto, which he opened in July.

At a time when a certain sameness has started to settle upon New York City’s oversaturated cocktail scene, Bar Goto’s combination of elegant, subtly Asian-inflected drinks and expertly made Japanese bar food feels notably unique. (The bar serves a great version of the savory pancake known at okonomiyaki.) Grub sat down with Goto, who didn’t start bartending professionally until he got to Pegu, to talk about how things are at the now-three-month-old bar, the differences between American and Japanese bartending styles, and why he sees himself as the Manny Pacquaio of the bartending world.

When you left Pegu Club, did you already have the vision of the kind of bar you wanted to create?
Yeah. The concept was craft cocktails with comfort Japanese bar food. I had that concept before I left. The concept never changed.

Does such a thing exist in Japan, a place with both craft cocktails and Japanese comfort food?
Yes, but not a lot. I know some cocktail bars in Japan where, if you ask for something to eat, sometimes they make an omelette or hot dogs. But in general, when you go to cocktail bars in Japan, you won’t be eating much.

Do you think of Bar Goto as a Japanese-style bar, an American-style bar, or both?
I’d say kind of both. But more like a New York bar with a Japanese flair. I don’t consider ourselves like Angel’s Share Part Two. Angel’s Share is more like an authentic Japanese bar.

The owner of Angel’s Share really wanted to created a Tokyo-style bar. In terms of that kind of bar, New York had only Angel’s Share for a number of years. Then some of the bartenders left and started B Flat in Tribeca. But beyond that, the Japanese style of cocktail bar didn’t really go any further in New York.
The model of business is different. Many cocktail bars in Japan are much smaller. Usually, maybe 30 people max. The famous ones, like High Five [in Tokyo], if you try to fit in 25 people, it’s really tough. If you want to go to the bathroom, you have to say “excuse me” to like eight people. The point is, that kind of dedication and hospitality is easy to execute at places that are so small. Places like Pegu, it’s just impossible to do the same kind of service. For instance, the use of ice. We always wanted to use an ice pick and block ice. But sometimes we would have to accommodate 130 people all at once. That would cost us extra people. It’s just too much.

As long as I’ve been writing about cocktails, American bartenders have been trying to wrap their heads around the Japanese style of bartending and trying to understand it and incorporate it into their work. But they never seem to completely comprehend it. Do you feel American bartenders still don’t really get what it’s all about?
Yes, definitely. I’m not exactly from the Japanese bartending camp. I started professionally bartending at Pegu. Being Japanese pushed me to study why Japanese bartenders in Japan do things this way and that way. Usually there is a reason for everything they do. But American bartenders are more focused on the style. I notice people in the States focus on what the bartenders do, not why they do it. For instance, something like the “hard shake”

The famously ornate shaking technique associated with the Japanese bartender Kazuo Uyeda and his Tender Bar. It was very controversial and argued over by American bartenders a few years ago.
I think the hard shake is great at the Tender Bar. By using the ice and equipment and the logistics behind their bar, it’s perfect. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be perfect for my bar or your bar.

What was the first drink you created for Bar Goto?
The Sakura Martini with the cherry blossom. That’s one thing I always, always wanted to do — use the cherry blossom. Everyone loves cherry blossoms. That’s the national flower of Japan, too. Why not use cherry blossoms? I couldn’t think of any other garnish that would be better for that type of drink.

Is it your most popular drink so far?

In a bar like this that is so specific in its vision, do you still get people who ask for Cosmopolitans and vodka-tonics?
I haven’t seen vodka-tonics, but Cosmopolitans yes. We just try to give them the most memorable Cosmo they’ve ever tasted.

Every one of the drinks on Bar Goto’s list has an Asian twist to it, such as plum wine or shochu or the cherry blossom in the Sakura Martini. Obviously, you intended that the drinks all somehow be identifiably Japanese in personality. Are you going to continue in that way?
I’ll try to continue to a certain extent, but I don’t want to limit it. I want to keep a nice balance. But for our opening menu, I wanted to put a little Japanese focus to it.

Is there an added difficulty in mixing with those ingredients?
Something like sake and shochu, the proof is much lower than, say, Maker’s Mark. Lower-proof cocktails can be too flat, especially when people are used to drinking Manhattans. It’s always lacking some satisfaction. My answer to that is: I almost always add a higher-proof spirit in tiny portions.

Do you intend the cocktails to go with the food?
Not necessarily.

Do you believe in pairing cocktails with food?
I’m a believer that people are going to eat whatever, if it’s good. As long as it’s good, everyone’s going to enjoy it. But we’re not going to do specific pairings.

You’ve been part of the New York cocktail scene for a while now. Where do you feel it’s headed these days?
A nice bar that is balanced. There is nothing wrong with a bar that is specializing in one thing. But in my case, that is what I want: a bar that has everything.

Pegu is a bar that’s known for having everything. But it was also known as a place for bartenders with big personalities. You have a more reserved personality, and yet you became a star bartender at Pegu as well. Why do you think that was? In New York, it can be really hard to get noticed if you don’t make a lot of noise.
People started wondering, “Who is this guy? Who is this Japanese guy?” Say this is boxing. Everyone is Mayweather. Just talk. I’m more like Manny Pacquiao. We stay quiet and just go in the ring and do it. I’m a big believer that if you do something good, the product is going to speak for itself. I don’t have to brag about it. That’s something that Audrey [Saunders, an owner of Pegu Club] was always telling me: “Let your product speak.”

Kenta Goto on His Unique New Cocktail Bar