A colleague is telling me about a recent dining experience at DC’s The Atlas Room. “The food is so outrageously good, that we keep putting down our forks and giggling.” I don’t know that chefs should aspire to create dishes that make guests break into peals of laughter. But there is something to be said for food that induces some expressions of glee. A recent excursion to Michael Mina’s Pabu in Baltimore’s Four Seasons Hotel elicits quite a few exuberant exclamations at our table.
We are here with friends who I will refer to as Chef S. and his wife. Chef S. is a discerning diner and accomplished home chef. When Chef S. tastes something particularly pleasurable no words are necessary. At first there is a look of wonderment as the tastes fully register on his palate. This is eventually replaced by an expression of pure joy. That’s what I’m talking about.
Our approach to Pabu’s Japanese izakaya (small plates) menu is to incorporate pescatarian options to satisfy my husband’s kosher requirements along with some very appealing beef, pork, and shellfish dishes for the rest of us.
Fire-roasted edamame with sake, mirin, soy, and Japanese chili is a cut above other similar versions. The intermingling of salty and spice is a perfect way to ease into the whirlwind of flavors to come. Ahi tuna poke with tobiko, scallion, and wonton crisps has flavor that builds to a satisfying finish. We could easily devour a second portion, but it’s too early in the game to stuff ourselves with one dish, no matter how good it is.
Amberjack with kanpachi, yuzu-chili, fried shallot, and pine nuts is a nightly special. And special it is. The fresh and delicate fish has just a touch of crunch and loads of flavor.
Tiny eggplants with spicy miso glaze is one of the don’t miss dishes from Todd Kliman’s Washingtonian review. We are glad that we don’t. This is the first of several dishes we order featuring miso glaze. We don’t notice this when ordering. Fortunately, its a sticky sweetness that could enhance any dish, and we don’t tire of it.
Maryland crab okonomiyaki with fried egg, pork belly, and mustard mayo is something of a mess at first glance But the pile of ingredients featuring contrasting colors each have a distinct flavor: tangy pickled ginger, creamy egg, and deliciously salty pork belly, not to mention the delightful crab. Could this be our favorite dish of the night? Perhaps.
The Berkshire pork country ribs with red chili glaze have me licking my fingers. The miso glaze makes another appearance, gently coating the wonderfully tender meat. This might be my favorite dish of the evening.
Then again there is roasted bone marrow. I’ve never really understood the appeal of bone marrow. Until now. Pabu’s spicy miso glazed (here it is again!) bone marrow is accented with ramp salsa verde. The bone marrow begs me to pick it up to ensure that I leave no morsel of meat untouched. I cannot ignore the call. Seriously this is my favorite dish at Pabu.
Four people are now grinning from ear to ear, as each dish that arrives at the table is better than the one that preceded it.
Dessert is debatable, and we’re leaning towards going without. But when we are presented the dessert menu from the neighboring Wit & Wisdom (also in the Four Seasons hotel), in addition to Pabu’s menu, we feel we have hit the dessert lottery. We decide to go with Wit & Wisdom’s offerings which includes “Banana” – warm banana cake, banana sherbet, cinnamon chocolate, brown sugar wafer and “Coffee and Cake” – devil’s food, espresso curd, and brown butter coffee sherbet. They are both heavenly.
There are many areas of the menu we’ve left unexplored including sushi, sashimi, and rolls, which may have been a tactical error. On the other hand, it’s certainly an excuse for a return visit.
The casual atmosphere is inviting and comfortable. But it’s the background music from the 80′s that makes us feel right at home, and brings more smiles to our faces.
Pabu is one of those places that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. It makes me realize that when at it’s best, food really is a laughing matter.
Pabu, 725 Aliceanna Street, Baltimore, MD
Review from Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurants for 2013*
*Pabu is on Washingtonian’s list of 100 Very Best Restaurants for 2013. Washingtonian‘s Todd Kliman explains why Pabu, as well as Baltimore’s Woodberry Kitchen, make it on the magazine’s list in one of his recent online chats: Our feeling was that both those places offer an experience that is not so common in DC, and that those experiences are worth sharing with our readers.