Bar Zizz: Refinement Without Pretense

Bar Zizz: Refinement Without Pretense

I am not a fancy cocktail guy.  My preference is a frosty beer or the ubiquitous Lemon Sour (shochu and soda water with fresh lemon juice).  I like wine with food.  When it comes to hard alcohol, I enjoy whiskey and ice, shots of near-frozen vodka or a good tequila; perhaps a gin and tonic in the Summertime.  If I ever do feel like a cocktail, I slant to the basics: very very dry vodka or gin martini.  Fancy cocktail bars make me feel a bit like I am getting conned.  I don’t quite understand the drinks, the various bitters, and mottled ingredients.  When I order a fancy cocktail, no matter what it is, it seems to taste like yummy fruit juice and I am tempted to drink the entire thing in one sip.  I sense disapproval from the bartenders, a sense they know I am a barbarian in their midst.   They seem too hushed.  Too self-serious.  Too elevated.  Give me a smoky izakaya and a $5 whiskey highball any day.

The one exception that I have found is Bar ZIZZ in Naka-Meguro.  I was first taken there by some friends that I play records with.  We had eaten yakitori, drank many beers and lemon sours and walked over — still fragrant from charcoal and roasting chicken parts.  The bar was on a quiet block, no other businesses nearby. We opened the door to find a small bar, maybe ten seats at a dark wood counter.  The lighting was recessed, very dim and intimate.  Glass cabinets on one side held rare whiskeys; a plethora of bottles were shelved behind the counter.  The Master (bartender/owner) looked like a Japanese Steve Allen — dark suit; thick, black horn-rimmed glasses; neat, black hair swept back from the forehead. Indeterminate age — somewhere between 55 and 70.  He knew one of my friends and put on a Studio One CD, volume low but the sound was pristine.  The Master had skill in conversation; whatever was thrown at him, he gathered it in with grace; what he threw back was gentle, a lobbed ball right to the glove.  He spoke a little bit of English, 4 months spent living in Queens.  He laughed easily and genuinely; retreated at the appropriate moments.  He owned the space behind the bar, a true Master of his domain.  I watched him work, selecting just the right goblet for red wine, carefully pouring a beer into a chilled mug; for my lemon sour, he deftly carved ice cubes from a large block, swirling them around until, like a game of Tetris, the individual cubes dropped into a perfect formation.  Best lemon sour of my life.

Since that first visit, I have returned on a number of occasions.  I eat in Naka-Meguro a lot — Grilled pork parts at Motsoyaki Den; the incredible horumon at Onoda Shoten; the BBQ at Hattos Bar.  Given that all of those places are meaty, smokey and a bit rough and tumble, it is a pleasure to take the ten-minute walk from the station to Bar Zizz where I can partake in a bit of indulgence.  The bar is never crowded.  There is always a seat.  The Master is always perfectly dressed, smoothly coifed, the epitome of cool and collected. I learned he had been a salaryman, worked for a famous design company.  He became enamored with cocktails and spent his nights interning at a few famous bars after spending his days working his regular job.  At a certain point, about 12 years previous, he went all-in and opened Bar Zizz, living in a small apartment above the bar.  Watching the master make a drink is to witness a mini-performance that is totally devoted to your pleasure.  He is totally focused, takes his time stirring, mixing, switching glass-ware for different purposes, giving a little spray of lemon over the edge of a glass.  What comes to you is perfect — a chilled gin martini, herbal and ethereal; a bracing Negroni, an Aperol Spritz that somehow seems elevated.  Some people might like a dessert, but for me, a little bit of indulgent theater at Bar Zizz is the exact way I want to end my evening — a touch of refinement with zero pretension.

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