How Bar Goto’s food menu rivals its cocktail program
Mar 13, 2019
“It’s somewhere between a classic TK and an Izakaya. We do casual cocktails and high-end food,” says Kenta Goto, who founded Bar Goto, on New York’s Lower East Side in 2015, after seven years behind the bar at Pegu Club. The food and cocktails aren’t necessarily designed to pair together, tasting-menu style, but rather complement the experience of spending time at a bar and naturally wanting something to munch on.
“The food is based on American bar food and I’m adding a Japanese flavour to it,” Goto says. Classic American sports bar fare inspired Goto when he created his menu. “At any sports bar you go to, you see wings with a side of veggie sticks,” he says. “But I noticed that in most cases, people don’t touch the veggie sticks even though they pay for them.” For this reason, Goto decided to give the people what they really want: celery sticks and chicken wings as separate menu items.
Along with a friend who served as a consulting chef, Goto developed a chicken wing marinated in miso, ginger and garlic, infusing Japanese flavour into the beloved finger food. “They are the ultimate Japanese chicken wings,” Goto says, attributing the crisp chicken to the bar’s quick rise in popularity. The wings, which come sprinkled with sesame and scallions, are a top seller, along with, well, the celery.
Originally shishito peppers, the celery dish, which features TKTKT, replaced the ubiquitous vegetable that was, and is still on, seemingly every New York menu when Bar Goto opened. “I couldn’t have shishitos on my menu,” Goto laughed – he wanted something special. The celery came out of a snack Goto used to make himself on his days off from Pegu Club, when he was a “zombie” from working nonstop weekend chefs. He’d kick back at home, watch a Yankees game, and sprinkle some seasonings on celery sticks, typically the only fresh food in his fridge. His friend helped him tweak the lazy day snack to become yet another top-selling menu item, salty, crunchy and even healthy enough to make patrons feel like ordering that third cocktail may not be such a bad idea.
Along with other bar snacks like chips and dips, seasonal pickles and pickled octopus, Bar Goto serves a special menu of okonomiyaki, Japanese savoury pancakes rarely seen in the United States. In fact, Goto’s mother specialised in making okonomiyaki at her restaurant in Chiba, Japan during his childhood. Nowhere near as popular as ramen or sushi in the United States, Goto wanted to make okonomiyaki his signature dish.
“In Japan, many people eat [okonomiyaki] while they drink,” Goto says. He compares the dish to pizza, lasagne, tacos or quiche – in that there’s a basic savoury base that can host basically unlimited topping combinations. Goto’s okonomiyaki recipe is tweaked from his mother’s and more suited to the New York palate, he says, but he still cites his mother as a “huge” inspiration on the menu.
When testing his okonomiyaki for Bar Goto, he realised that the typically flat and round pancake wasn’t exactly suited to the small space of his Manhattan bar. So, he did what New Yorkers typically do in terms of space: he made it taller and higher! “It was an accident, but it also looks new,” Goto says of his version of the traditional Japanese dish. It’s served in a cast iron pan and in five different renditions, the most popular being The Classic which combines pork belly, rock shrimp, squid, cheddar cheese and yakisoba noodles, topped with kewpie mayo, okonomi sauce, bonito flakes and pickled red ginger. Flavour-wise, Goto says his renditions of okonomiyaki, including a meat lovers’, seafood and vegetarian versions, are all pretty traditional, but with slightly different and a higher concentration of toppings. “Okonomiyaki can be very doughy, stuffed with lots of cabbage and if you get two pieces of pork it’s your lucky day,” Goto says. New Yorkers, who are used to slices of pizza overridden with toppings, needed more texture and filling in their okonomiyaki and Goto wasn’t going to disappoint.
In his few years of running this bar, Goto has been surprised at the popularity of his small food menu. “The food happens to be more popular than I ever thought it would be,” he says. “95 percent of people come here to drink, most people use this as a bar, but then they meet up, have a drink or two, start eating some bar food, get too comfortable, drink more and cancel their dinner reservations,” he says with a smile.