High Five Bar

T and I have social media to thank for discovering High Five Bar in Tokyo, owned by the world renowned bartender Hidetsugu Ueno. Given that T and I are huge fans of Brendan Sodikoff's restaurants in Chicago (Bavettes Bar and Boeuf, Maude's Liquor Bar, Gilt Bar), we trust the taste of Chicago's known restaurateur. In an interview with him on Eater Chicago, Sodikoff mentions High Five Bar as one of his favorite bars in Tokyo and even going so far as to naming his upcoming ramen joint in Chicago after this bar. Another random time as I browse my Twitter feed, I see a tweet from Grant Achatz (of Chicago's Alinea and Next) that he is at High Five Bar during his trip there. A quick online search reveals the bar's reputation.

Ueno-san, the renowned bartender and owner of High Five Bar has created himself a little hideout on the 4th floor of a business building. The counter at the bar seats only 8 people and the 2 tables at the side can tightly accommodate about 6 more people. Halfway through the night, a few Japanese opened the door to the bar only to be politely and apologetically turned away because unfortunately there really is no open seats to accommodate them.

Though he takes his craft seriously, he does not take himself too seriously. There are energetic and boisterous laughter from him all night. With his highly styled hair and suspenders, Ueno-san is extremely approachable and humble. One would not have guessed that he is one of the top men in his field.

There is no menu here. Assisted by two employees, they ask guests what type of drinks he or she likes: Refreshing? Smokey? Whiskey? Vodka? Then, Ueno-san goes on to create the drink. His technique is precise and methodical. We both order a Scotch cocktail but each of our cocktails is prepared differently- mine has cherry blossom liqueur  added to the drink and each sip has a nice lingering taste which I like very much; Tim's drink is a little more "masculine", for the lack of a better word. After our first cocktail, we order whiskey on the rocks and according to Ueno-san, in his 23 years of bartending, we are one of the 100 guests who have ordered just whiskey alone. Speaking perfect English, he explains the unique Japanese whiskeys on the shelf, the different types and breweries. Take Asama whiskey, for example. It's made in Japan but due to some contractual rules, this whiskey is only sold outside of Japan and then renamed Asama. He tells us that his bottle of Asama on the shelf is bought from London.

Everything Ueno-san is for a reason. Throughout the night, we see several cocktails made with a metal shaker except for when he is making a cocktail with fresh kiwi juice and using a plastic shaker. I ask curiously the reason for him switching to a plastic shaker for this particular drink. He laughs and and cheekily says, "Because I have no money" to buy more metal shakers. And then, getting a bit more serious in his craft, he replies that when shaking the juice, the key is not to dilute it but just chill it. Metal shakers are hard enough that through vigorous shaking, it can cause small chips to break off from the ice which can then dilute the juice.

At one point, we tell him, "You're very famous." He replies, "In a good or bad way?", and then laughs. We tell him that he is mentioned in Twitter. He says that he has a Facebook account though he does not go on there often. There are over a thousand friend requests but he does not know those people. Ahhh, we told you your'e famous.

High Five Bar
Ginza 7-2-14, No.26 Polestar Building, 4th Floor



Under the Yurakucho train tracks


One of the most interesting aspects that makes Tokyo "Tokyo" is the hundreds of eating and drinking establishments located in hidden spots, along alleyways, or under train tracks. As hidden or secretive the location may appear to be to someone who does not live in this city, these establishments are everyday joints that locals frequent. Under the JR Yurakucho train tracks are a long stretch of yakitori restaurants, ramen spots, and bars from the northern to southern sections of the tracks. On weekdays especially, it is a popular spot for salarymen after work before catching the train home as part of their everyday commute. Establishments are found on the outer side of the tracks facing the main road. More treasure troves of drinking and eating spots that are not visible from the main road can be explored on foot as you make your way underneath the tracks and into pedestrian tunnels and alleyways. Our November visit here is cold but there is no stopping the Japanese from enjoying a night out with friends outdoors. Friends, food and drinks (Highball is a popular choice among the salarymen) are all that matters.

We explore the maze of alleyways and decide on a random spot that catch our eyes. It is 9pm and most tables are already filled but we manage to score two seats at an outermost corner section of the tightly spaced restaurant. At 10pm, the place is completely filled. The late comers have to settle with the standing corner tables. Besides biru (beer), people are drinking glasses of Highball one after another. Everyone is happy. Funny conversations seem to be taking place all round as evidenced by the atmosphere, voices, and laughter.

We order items of yakitori to go with our beer. The grilled reba (chicken liver) remains one of the best liver items I've had- it is very lightly grilled on the outside so that the inside remains rare to medium rare. Topped with a pinch of fresh root wasabi, the texture and flavor of the liver is very memorable. The enoki-wrapped chicken and tsukune (ground chicken), though a seemingly safe choices, are not boring because they are done so well. Our favorite is the bacon-wrapped chives with its perfect balance of saltiness from the bacon and natural flavors from the chives to balance out the bacon. The Japanese sweet potato fries are so addictive with beer, they're a must-have.

Though primarily a night spot, there are some establishments that are open in the day. Breakfast one morning for us is at a standing-only ramen shop under the JR Yurakucho train tracks- we pay at the vending machine, hand our tickets to the man behind the counter, and wait for our shoyu ramen and side of kare raisu (Japanese curry rice). One will never go hungry in Tokyo.