So, a shoe salesman walks into a bar… Sounds like the set up for a joke, but it’s actually the beginning of a beautiful friendship. A fan of the deep whiskey list that Justin Park (two-time “World’s Best Mai Tai” champion; 2014 “Shake It Up!” Cocktail Competition winner; USA representative, IBA World Cocktail Competition) had curated as bar manager at The Manifest in Chinatown, Tom Park (no relation), founder of luxury shoe retailer Leather Soul, struck up a friendship with Justin.
Flash-forward to the two having a “crazy idea” to open a bar together. Their crazy idea has now become a reality, and the opening of Bar Leather Apron has been much-anticipated among local cocktail geeks and whiskey nerds, and those who have longed for a quiet, elegant bar focused on making excellent drinks. The invite-only soft opening weekend was held January 7 to 9 to allow the staff to work out their kinks. We went on the last night of the opening, by which time Park + Park had already figured out a few things they planned to change.
Full disclosure: Bar Leather Apron is a Put It On My Plate client. Shake and I have been friends and fans of Justin’s for years, and Tom is also a friend and my high school classmate.
I’ve frequently mentioned Justin and The Manifest on this blog before. Bar Leather Apron is the spot he’s been dreaming of having for a long time. We always enjoyed visiting him at Manifest, but truth be told, come 10pm on a Friday, we were outta there. It turned loud and clubby, and got crowded—I don’t fault them for it; you do what you need to do to stay in business—it just wasn’t our scene. So we’re delighted with BLA’s quiet, plush-chairs-and-couches vibe.
You’ll probably hear and see the word “intimate” being used a lot in reference to BLA. It’s a small space—just six seats at the bar, 13 seats in the lounge area (some of it’s couches, so conceivably people who are tiny or very comfortable with one another might find room to squeeze in a couple more) and space for six in a small private room; add in a couple standing-room only areas in the corners, and you’ve got capacity for 30 or fewer.
Because of this, BLA has started a reservation system. They’re not reservation-only—they’ve made certain to allow for half the seats to be available for walk-ins—but right now everyone and their brother wants to check the place out, so you just have to take your chances that they could be full. Reservations are via e-mail only (firstname.lastname@example.org), and can be made for parties of one to four at the bar, or up to six in the lounge. If you’re feeling especially high-roller, you can even buy out the entire place for a four-hour block (minimum spend, $1500 plus tax and gratuity, payable and non-refundable, due one week in advance) for a party of 20. Shake says he wishes he could’ve played and won Powerball so that he could buy out the bar for us plus, like, two friends. (Is it crazy that I feel like I would let him do that just once? Confession: It would be so he couldn’t get mad at me for booking a matching $1500 in spa treatments. Seeing as how this is all hypothetical, anyway.)
Let’s talk about the drinks. The BLA whiskey list is even more expansive than what Justin put together at Manifest. The Japanese whisky offerings are particularly numerous and impressive; there’s been a surge in popularity for Japanese whisky locally, so it’s been difficult to find bottles (that aren’t hundreds and hundreds of dollars) available for retail—they get snapped up very quickly. BLA even offers a menu of Highballs made with Japanese whiskies. I’m not a fan of Japanese whiskies’ peaty, smoky flavor profile, but the Shiso Highball was light and refreshing. (I’m kind of a sucker for shiso, though. It’s an herb—in the mint family, though it has no “minty” flavor—used commonly in Japanese cuisine; if you see “yukari” on a menu, that’s shiso in dried form. Yummy.)
I don’t know how many hours a day Justin and his bar crew (Luke Atay, Art Deakins and Jared Fread) spend on making ice, but I’m sure it’s an endless process. They’re using reverse osmosis filtered water and although the ice spheres are pretty impressive (and if I worked there, I would no longer possess hands—I’ve watched them chisel these things; it’s insane), the real cool deal is the “disappearing” ice column. These go into the highballs, primarily. You can read through them, they’re so clear. Fascinating. The glassware here is also just stunning, imported from Japan. Shake is scared of the highball glass because it’s so delicate.
In the lounge seating area, you can order from an expanded Classic Cocktails menu, featuring drinks like the Moscow Mule, Clover Club (gin, Lillet Blanc, raspberry, lemon and egg white—very pretty) and Daiquiri (they’re making it with my favorite Kō Hana rum, your choice of Kea (white) or Koa (aged)). The Highball menu is also available, with its house creations, the Yuzu, Maple or Shiso Highballs, made with Hakushu and Nikka whiskies. And of course, you can order straight spirits or standard drinks like Negronis, dirty martinis and the like, beer or wine.
The Signature Cocktail menu is available exclusively at the bar. This kind of “some people get one thing, others get another” division probably upsets some people, but there’s a sound philosophy behind it. The bar seating is the true Bar Leather Apron experience, centered on personal interaction. Justin and Tom feel the visuals of watching your drink being made (trust me, there’s a showmanship element there—not flair, if that’s what you’re thinking; just a certain level of panache) and how it’s delivered to you are a key component of the whole experience. This is a bar in which you don’t order a drink and have it just handed to you—it’s presented. Tom likens it to high-end sushi establishments: “Seats are limited, things are handcrafted with quality ingredients and there is a focal chef—or, in our case, bartender—at the helm. It’s not a new concept, just a new concept for a bar.”
We’re sit-at-the-bar people. We always have been. I love to sit at the bar and watch what drinks are being made, and the technique of the bartenders. I get a thrill out of sitting at the sushi counter wondering, “Ooh, is that one mine? Is he making mine now? What’s that one? Maybe we should get that, too!” and having my order handed over, offered with two hands and a nod of the head. It reminds me that dining out used to be a really special thing, and both sides of the exchange—the customer and the establishment—were appreciative of the whole experience. Some people don’t like the counter experience because they feel it’s a little too in-your-face. I get that. No one likes to be watched while they’re eating; you can feel pressured. But that’s what’s great about a small place like this, or a similar type and sized restaurant—you can see that no matter where you sit, care is being taken with what you’re consuming.
The signature drinks do take extra time and attention to create, so the bar team came to the decision that in order to execute at the highest level, they needed to limit those creations to the six seats in front of them. That way they’re not backing up service for the entire room, and those sitting in the lounge, who can’t see what’s going on, don’t miss that part of the experience and feel like they’ve waited forever for “just” a drink.
Signature cocktails include the Flowers For You, named for Tom’s mother’s flower shop, located in the same building. Justin makes adorable little citrus peel flowers to garnish the drink, which has chamomile-infused vodka, St-Germain, orange bitters, yuzu and grapefruit. You know I ordered this straightaway, right?
The Leather Soul, obviously, is an homage to Tom’s store. Made with Leather Soul’s Knob Creek Single Barrel selection, Laphroaig 18-year, Cynar and tobacco-infused Antica Formula vermouth, Tom calls it “smokey and leathery…mmm…a very manly drink.” I didn’t try this one, but I’ve had the tobacco-infused vermouth and Cynar combination before, at the Punch for Pooches USBG fundraiser, and it’s surprisingly not as weird or off-putting as it sounds. (Laphroaig, though…shudder.)
We ran into cocktail aficionado Randy Wong and his wife, Helen, while we were there. They sat at the bar with us, and Helen let me try her Matcha Old Fashioned, one of several house Old Fashioneds on the Signature menu. It’s made with Weller Antique 107, Japanese green tea and wasanbon sugar. (I remember getting Japanese sugar candies as a kid from my grandparents or clients at the law firm where my mom worked; they were very mildly sweet and really delicious. Now I know they were made from wasanbon sugar!) The Matcha Old Fashioned was a perfect drink for me—I love matcha and I do have a sweet tooth. The sweetness is much milder than what you get by using regular white, refined sugar simple syrup, though, and balanced by the matcha which is quite bitter on its own, and a bit earthy. If you’re new to drinking whiskies and bourbons, I think this is a nice start.
Many things about BLA are reminiscent of Japanese bars, from the use of “Bar” at the beginning of the name to the presentation of hot towels when you arrive. While Tom and Justin are quick to say it’s not defined as a “Japanese bar,” they acknowledge that they’ve definitely modeled their service after the customer-oriented approach found in Japanese establishments. So as you sip your lovely drink, a server might present you with a small dish of Japanese peanuts, a tiny teacup of savory cold cucumber soup or a little plate of marinated gobo (burdock root, which I usually outright hate…this was astonishingly tasty; I ate several pieces—when I reached for the second, Shake’s head swiveled around as he stared at me in disbelief). Shake got some chicharonnes with his BLA Old Fashioned. (Which, yes, I know, is out of focus; I started playing with my 50mm lens again and it’s fun, but ooh, that focus plane…)
Nibbles are also available for purchase. The Otsumami Plate ($8), below left, offers a variety of little snacks—on this one, which Randy and Helen ordered, there was smoked fish spread with crackers, pickled quail eggs, a fruit and chocolate mix, a nut mix, gobo and “honey balls.” The latter are a Japanese snack called either hachimitsu boro (I remember calling them hachi boro, but no one else seems to remember this name) or kimi boro (which people do remember). My brother used to love these, so my grandma always kept a glass Folgers jar full of them at their house. Helen and I agreed they’re weird and powdery and we didn’t like them as kids, and we still don’t like them. Randy and Justin remembered them very fondly and even Shake said he liked how they melt in your mouth. Nope. It’s weird. (Another culture note: otsumami, loosely translated, means “bar snacks.” The root word, “tsumamu,” means to pick up with one’s fingers, so really, it’s “finger foods.” But that’s not very elegant sounding, and BLA is nothing if not an elegant place.)
The BLA Soup (a black peppered chicken soup, very savory, very warming; $5) is a standard as well. The food is prepared by Livestock Tavern. Original BLA plans called for a more substantial menu of offerings from Livestock, and those who went to the soft opening on the first day got to experience it, but the weekend demonstrated that it wouldn’t be feasible for BLA to carry out their standard of service while having a hot food program with their current staffing and operations. I think it’s awesome they’ve tapped into such a great food partner, though.
Prices for cocktails at BLA range from $12 to upwards of $20. This is one of those times where you’ll just have to decide for yourself if you feel that’s too much, or if it’s “worth it” to you. Other quality cocktail establishments in town (e.g., Pint + Jigger, Livestock Tavern, Bevy, The Pig and the Lady) tend to start at $9 to $12 and top out around the $15 mark. But all of these establishments are much larger and louder, and two of them are actually restaurants that happen to have a great bar program; the other two are bars with good food programs. If you want a mellower venue that’s focused solely on the drink experience, complete with the plushy furnishings and beautiful barware, well, that has a cost. L’Apertif at Halekulani would be a closer model to what BLA offers—quieter, no televisions; it’s technically part of La Mer, the restaurant, but it feels physically separate—and their cocktails are $20. Those do include a very high-end bite of food, but there are no lower priced options, and while the drinks are excellent, you can’t ask the creator—the celebrated Colin Field—about them while he serves them to you. To me, it is a less personal experience.
Beers start at $7, and spirits run the range all the way up to $100+ a glass.
We’re looking forward to visiting Bar Leather Apron again soon. Congratulations to Justin, Tom and all the BLA crew on their opening!
Bar Leather Apron
Topa Financial Center, 745 Fort St., Mezzanine Level (take the stairs), Topa Tower
Parking: Free, with validation
Bathrooms: In the building lobby, ask the hostess for the key
Hours: Monday through Friday, 3pm to midnight; Saturday, 5pm to midnight