This isn’t your typical neighborhood sushi joint, though there’s certainly sushi, sashimi, and nigiri to be had. It’s much more sophisticated than grabbing a to-go order in a paper bag. After all, Pabu is attached to the glitzy Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore with all its pomp and circumstance. Heck, there are even sake sommeliers. And that was one of our favorite parts—being initiated into the ritual of sake. We aren’t regular sake drinkers, so we were baffled by the dozens of offerings. Thankfully, a sommelier gave us needed guidance. Cold sake, we learned, is purer than warm sake (which is still perfectly fine). And much like wine, you pick a bottle according to criteria like earthy vs. floral, sweet vs. dry.
Our choice was soon delivered to the table with small earthenware cups that are larger than a shot glass, smaller than a tumbler. It’s appropriate to pour your friend a cup of sake as a sign of camaraderie.
As we perused the menu, we were puzzled by the prices, several of which end with 88 cents. For example, the chilled soba noodles are $7.88; the amberjack sashimi plate, $14.88.
At first, we thought it was because the number eight is considered lucky in Eastern cultures, but our server said the pricing was in reference to the Kill Bill movies. We’re not sure what the film’s Crazy 88 gang has to do with food. The imagery doesn’t quite work with Pabu’s serene atmosphere. But it’s a good answer to a trivia question.
The Harbor East restaurant—a collaboration of celebrated chef Michael Mina, who opened the hotel’s Wit & Wisdom restaurant, and noted sushi chef Ken Tominaga—is a polished setting with gorgeous views of the harbor. (Sunset is mesmerizing.) Honey-colored wood, bamboo ceilings, and shelves of white-ceramic sake jars the size of a well-fed cat add to the dining room’s elegance.
The service is impeccable in keeping with the surroundings. Dinner starts with a server bringing pristine rolled towels on a tray for freshening up.
Pabu, which is patterned after a Japanese Izakaya, or pub (albeit a fancy one), focuses its menu on small plates, charcoal-grilled skewers, and sushi.
We recommend the six-course satori menu to get a delicious sampling of Pabu’s offerings. It also takes the confusion out of trying to decide what to order. The night we visited, the tasting menu was $44.88 a person with an optional beverage pairing for $24.88.
Pabu is not cheap: It doesn’t take long for the bill to creep into triple digits for a table of four by the time you order several dishes.
Like a tapas place, this is a restaurant for sharing plates. One of our party ordered the satori menu; the rest of us filled in with a variety of dishes à la carte. By meal’s end, we were sated.
Highlights included the “happy spoon” appetizer—indeed, a delightful mouthful of flavors with a fat oyster draped with uni, salmon roe, and a citrusy crème fraîche—the lotus-root salad with slices of the reddish-brown root glistening with sesame dressing and sprinkled with sesame seeds, and the impeccably fresh aji (horse mackerel) from the famed Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.
The menu features an impressive selection of fish, flown in from the Japanese wholesaler, from bluefin toro to saltwater eel. The restaurant also offers a range of local and domestic fish.
One dish that our server suggested revolved around Maryland crabmeat. But the delicate crab in the okonomiyaki was overwhelmed by its partnering ingredients: fried egg, pork belly, and mustard-laced mayo.
The robata offerings were terrific. These charcoal-grilled skewers burst with flavor. We tried the prime skirt steak, chicken meatballs, and pork-belly spears with great success.
Other dishes of note include local HCC farm greens with Asian pears and crispy ginger in a sesame-soy dressing; the spicy roll (we tried the scallop and yellowtail); and Michael’s “chicken-noodle” soup, a dark-brown, restorative broth with ramen and chicken dashi (stock).
For dessert, the four of us nibbled on the selection offered with the satori menu. It was more than enough. The arrangement of pineapple green-tea mochi (ice cream), panna cotta with tapioca pearls, a cream-puff-like pastry with a strawberry filling, and a chocolate bonbon housing sesame paste was lovely, too.
Pabu also has a lively happy hour, where you can enjoy discounted food and drink prices. Sake is served by the glass or bottle at the bar, with a knowledgeable sommelier on hand again to assist you. He’ll be happy to give you tastings until you find the one you like.
Then, settle in and watch the sky broadcast pinks and oranges as the day comes to a close over the Baltimore skyline. It’s worth the price of admission.