Hardly anything at Pabu grabs you by the lapels.
The last and latest restaurant to open at the new Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, Pabu calls itself an "izakaya," the Japanese name for a drinking establishment that serves food. The izakaya craze has landed big-time in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, along with the inevitable squabbling about what defines a true izakaya.
Essentially, an izakaya offers diners a menu of small plates from which they can order over a long, merry evening, and there's traditionally an emphasis on savory grilled and marinated items. Beyond that, an izakaya is anything you want it to be.
If, however, your izakaya is in the Four Seasons Hotel, where a moderate bout of eating and drinking for two could run about $150, the food should be gorgeous, intriguing and delicious, preferably all at the same time.
With a few exceptions, Pabu's came and went over two visits without fully engaging the senses. This is true of small plates, hot and cold, from the kitchen and the composed sashimi plates, rolls and other offerings from the sushi bar.
Sushi isn't traditionally served in a traditional Japanese izakaya, where the emphasis is on grilled, fried and broiled items, but American diners seem to expect it in a Japanese restaurant. Although Pabu's sushi and sashimi offerings tantalize on the page — some of the fish is imported from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market — they can disappoint at the table.
Sashimi, when ordered a la carte or as a five-piece $35 tasting, comes in a bowl of ice. This style of presentation can produce moments of high drama, but not at Pabu, where it looks contrived and hurried. The fish slices, fresh but smallish, are either laid out on aromatic leaves, nestled in smaller bowls or submerged just slightly in a pile of chunky ice. Rolls look drab on stoneware plates, and a signature roll made with shrimp tempura, avocado and spicy tuna comes across as commonplace.
Among the small plates we tried, there were little delights like the "Happy Spoon," a six-buck slurp of oyster, salmon roe and uni (sea urchin) topped with creme fraiche, and the kampachi, a composed sashimi plate with five slices of paper-thin amberjack, each artfully arranged with flying fish roe and topped with fried shallots and pine nuts.
The hot plates left me cold. The tempura wasn't pretty or crisp enough. The Maryland crab okonomiyaki looked like a savory beauty, topped with a sunny egg and pickled ginger. But then what should have been a pancake was actually a crab-and-potato hash, and the sauce underneath had a sweet ketchup-y taste. A crispy soft-shell crab, halved and stacked on the plate, looked like a winner (though I'm still not sure how it's meant to be managed with chopsticks). It was really just OK, this crab, crunchy and squirty, but absent any flavor or quality to distinguish it from a hundred others.
The best bites, or at least the most interesting, come from the charcoal grill, or robata. These can be a cunning contraption like chicken meatballs served with the yolk of a freshly cracked egg, or plainly presented skewered parts of the chicken Americans don't usually like to think about, such as the tail and the heart. But if you're following the menu's natural progression, from top to bottom, these come too late to revive your interest.
Pabu's opening completes the restaurant set at the Four Seasons Baltimore Hotel, all of them developed by the San Francisco-based Mina Group. Of the three, only Lamill, a collaboration with the Los Angeles area coffee roaster by that name, arrived fully ready for company. I found Wit & Wisdom, at least early on, a perplexing affair, and recently a new executive chef, Clayton Miller, has been hired to put the tavern on course.
For Pabu, chef Michael Mina partnered with Ken Tominaga, the chef and owner of a Japanese restaurant in Sonoma County, Calif. Neither Mina nor Tominga's name appears on the Pabu menu, and it's unclear how much either one has to do with the restaurant's continuing operations.
Pabu doesn't seem committed to letting customers have the essential izakaya experience of ordering a few things now and a few more things later. Your server might ask you to hand over your menus so often and insistently that you eventually give in. Or he might tell you outright that you're throwing off the pace of your own meal.
As for the izakaya atmosphere, almost anything goes now, style-wise, from hole-in-the-wall to casino glitz. Pabu is right there in between. The oval-shaped dining room has its nice touches, like the chocolate brown cushions on the curving blond-wood banquettes, but there are disconcerting ones too, like the weird empty end of the oval, where it looks like they just ran out of tables to fill the space.
The kitchen at Pabu closes at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 10:30 p.m on weekends, which feels on the early side for an izakaya. It made me less willing to explore Pabu's extensive sake menu and intriguing whiskey program.
Already, the staff seems like they're waiting for each evening to end. On my way back to the table from the restroom, a waiter asked if I was finished with my cocktail.
Where: 725 Aliceanna St., Inner Harbor
Hours: Open Tuesday-Sunday for dinner
Prices: Sushi and sashimi $4-$24 (not including tasting plates); small plates $5-$15; rice, noodles and soup dishes $8-$20
[Key: Outstanding: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]