A place can claim it’s a pub all night long. It can even call itself “pub” — that’s what Pabu means in Japanese. When the location is the glassy Millennium Tower, when the elevator is private, when a celebrity chef is involved (Pabu Boston is Michael Mina’s 30th restaurant), and when the fish soup — purporting to be a take on New England chowder — slams down on the table with a resounding $59 ka-ching, the place has maybe lost the right to the term. (Never mind the $18 can of beer.)
This Pabu is a revisit of the original, which opened in San Francisco in 2014, featuring the same nouveau Japanese, izakaya-style menu. For both, Mina joined forces with his favorite sushi master, Ken Tominaga, chef-owner of Hana Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, Calif. Here, 24-foot, ceiling-to-floor windows offer hawk-eyed views of Downtown Crossing; the sushi bar hovers like an altar at one end of the room. Decorative cherry blossoms and cranes are hand-painted by an LA artist, and more than a few patrons arrive in shiny $2,000 Moncler parkas. Rather than rollicking and rowdy, the atmosphere is upscale and sedate.
Looking at the menu, it’s hard to anticipate where Pabu’s treasures lie. With one choice, you get burned. With another, you’re rewarded several times over. Simplicity — or channeling the true izakaya, Japanese-gastro-pub style — tends to be the best bet. Until it isn’t.
This begins with trying to land a respectable cocktail. The Classic Lolita sounds like it could be a throwaway, an Old Fashioned made with Japanese whiskey. But what arrives is complex and satisfying — a smoky, layered, winter-spiced powerhouse. Same goes for the 2 Dots & A Dashi, which features more Japanese whiskey and also China China (a French spirit made of macerated orange peel), along with dashi, that umami-spiked broth of boiled seaweed and bonito flakes. Close to transcendent? Yes. Pubby? Not quite.
For that, we sample a few Japanese beers, skipping over the reliable Asahi Super Dry in favor of Hitachino Nest ($14.88), a red rice beer. It’s sweet, innocuous, forgettable. That $18 can, Echigo Koshihikari, comes with no head, no body, no flavor. It’s like drinking a pricey Schlitz tallboy.
But then we have the good fortune of flagging down the manager, Linchul Shin, who appears to be crisscrossing the space in perpetuity. If anything elevates the experience at Pabu, it’s Linchul Shin. Everyone I eat with agrees. He radiates a rare combination of deep knowledge, affability, and enthusiasm.
His story is worth noting. When he was in college, he found work as a busboy in one of Mina’s San Francisco restaurants. He vaulted through the ranks. It probably helped that his Korean parents owned Japanese restaurants in southern California. As he describes it, while other kids were playing sports or practicing the oboe, he was washing dishes, running food, waiting tables, shadowing his father on runs to LA fish markets. Last year he opened up a Mina restaurant in Dubai. This fall, Boston. He’s all of 27.
He recommends a fine glass of sake, Aizu Chushou, and encourages us to start with sashimi and end with sushi rolls, so as not to overload on rice. The horse mackerel and Japanese Spanish mackerel, red scorpion fish and seared skipjack tuna — all are artfully arrayed, super fresh, generously portioned, gorgeously elemental. In contrast, something called the “happy spoon” revels in dimension: a Duxbury oyster, a lobe of Maine sea urchin, salmon and flying fish roe, crème fraiche. Each potent component somehow gets smelted into a single, resplendent flavor. Call it Ocean Incarnate.
The house-made silken tofu sits prettily in a broth of lemon soy decorated with pickled wasabi and matcha salt, but it never quite lifts off — subtlety a bit too subtle. But then the kinpira lotus root is a shocker, considering the modesty of the ingredients. The look is arresting, like the antechamber of some medieval sea creature run through a mandoline. The crunchy pieces are bathed in “umami soy” — isn’t all soy umami? — fish roe, sesame oil, and a gathering, floral heat.
The Maine lobster okonomiyaki is described to our table as “a flavor bomb.” It’s certainly a formidable stack of flavor, and it’s also a bit of a bomb — better built for camera than mouth: a savory cabbage pancake piled with pork belly, squid, lobster, a sunny-side-up egg, bonito flakes. The Tokyo karaage, basically fried chicken balls with spicy mayo, is hard not to love. And the whole grilled squid, sliced thin, reads, finally, as simple pub fare. It’s caramel-y and delicious, even if the Kewpie mayo accompaniment gets old after five bites.
Then, with the seared foie gras, we are back to high aim ($26) and quiet disappointment. Everything around it hits squarely — a piece of broiled anago (eel), eel sauce, a crisp black rice cake, candied kumquats — but the foie gras itself is stringy and soft. At $13 a bite, you expect premium grade. At half the price, the maitake mushroom tempura is five times as generous and delivers in every way. The frying is expert. Woodsy flavor and structural delicacy are left intact. It’s a Pabu must.
Izakaya menus often center on robatayaki, or grilled skewers of meat, and Pabu features a dozen of them. Again, the delivery is erratic: the excellent lurking amid the workmanlike. All arrive undergrilled. I check out photos of the San Francisco Pabu’s robatayaki, and sure enough, its meats get a harder sear. Because of this, the chicken thigh that should be delicious is merely ho-hum. And the Wagyu A5 rib (one skewer, three smallish chunks, $28) packs remarkable flavor, but would approach perfection with traces of char. The bowl of pan-blistered shishito peppers is all-around gutsier fare. If only you could combine these with skewers of meat twice the size and grilled hard, you’d be eating lamb kebabs at Santarpio’s across the harbor.
Pabu offers six “char-grilled & butter-basted” steaks, including Wagyu A5 strip loin. It costs $56 for 2 ounces, the weight of my car key. More-economical sirloin, $36 for 6 ounces, may not be the tenderest cut, but dusted with shio koji — sea salt added to the fungus responsible for soy and miso — it makes for a wonderfully mysterious encounter. And its arrival, above smoking cedar, is pure theater.
As for that $59 fish soup, it is Pabu’s lone hot pot. It comes with a whole cut-up lobster, clams, enoki mushrooms, cod belly, udon noodles, and butter made with monkfish liver. Sounds like one more flavor bomb, but the broth is several steps from assertive, and the whole production wants for salt, including the lobster, which tastes poached in distilled water.
Those sushi rolls arrive near the end. The flamboyant ones — Ken’s roll, with shrimp tempura and spicy tuna, and Michael’s negitoro — glide over like a pair of Bentleys, built from the finest fish. The show ends with a bang: Pabu’s desserts. Milk chocolate-sesame custard with black-sesame sponge cake, Okinawan doughnuts with adzuki pudding, and a spectacular mochi sundae, shaved pomegranate ice hiding bursts of lemongrass gelee and passion-fruit tapioca. With this extravagant finale, any pubbish pretense is gone — for good.
3 Franklin St., Downtown Crossing, Boston, 857-327-7228, www.michaelmina.net. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Small plates $7-$26. Robatayaki (skewers) $6-$28. Hot pot and steaks $36-$115. Sashimi and rolls $7-$32. Desserts $9-$12.
Hours Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30-9:45 p.m. (bar open between lunch and dinner). Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m. (bar opens at 5).
Noise level Upscale sedate
What to order Chef-select sashimi, “happy spoon” oyster, kinpira lotus root, Tokyo (fried chicken) karaage, grilled squid, maitake mushroom tempura, shishito peppers, shio koji sirloin, Ken’s roll, Michael’s negitoro, mochi sundae.
Ted Weesner can be reached at email@example.com.