Behind Bars

Wow, Naka Has a Seriously Cool New Bar Program

New resident cocktail czar Dustin Haarstad ushers in an era of hand-carved diamond ice cubes.

By Allecia Vermillion September 21, 2016

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Dustin Haarstad and a bevy of Japanese whisky for cocktails, comparison tastings, and some future pairings with dishes from Naka's kitchen. Photo by Suzi Pratt via Naka.

Naka has been a great place to drink since the day Shota Nakajima swung open the doors of his fine dining kaiseki restaurant on Capitol Hill. Opening bar manager Nik Virrey put the cocktail program on the city's imbibing map, but when Virrey moved to LA, Nakajima and the rest of the restaurant's ownership decided to make the bar scene more cohesive with the elegant multicourse meals happening in the dining room beyond, not to mention Naka's Japanese DNA.

Enter Dustin Haarstad, who spent four years at Canon and has a gleefully geeky affinity for Japanese drinking culture. He hunted down a source for Japan's Echigo beer—rare in these parts—laid in a supply of nearly 30 different bottles of Japanese whiskies, and leaned on sake and shochu's undersung versatile charms for cocktails. Lest you think this drink lineup is super delicate and subtle, there's also an old fashioned made with wagyu-infused bourbon, pecan syrup, and smoke.

Perhaps most impressively, Naka's bar staff has begun hand-carving ice into spheres—their slower-melting surface area long a badge of serious cocktail programs—and is adding diamond-shaped carved ice to the mix, too.

The spheres I get. Plus, says Haarstad, they come in handy for Naka's new house highball program; "it's the drink of the workingman in Japan." But, diamonds?

The shape yields a lower dilution rate, just like a sphere, says Haarstad. "Other than that, diamonds are purely for their dashing good looks." They're also (are you sensing a theme here?) big in Japan. The diamonds will arrive when tableside cocktail and ice service launches in the dining room, likely in late October or early November.

Nakajima also wanted more interplay between food and bar. Enter the seasonally changing culinary cocktail; order it and you're basically getting a drink and its deconstructed food doppelganger (including the booze), served in a single bite. Right now it's a take on the traditional gin drink Southside, with lemon, mint, and St. Germaine. 

Naka's new menu of bar food arrives tonight, a mix of snackier dishes like seafood tartare or fried abalone mushrooms and heartier rice bowls and entree-size black cod or six-hour braised pork belly. Ryan Lobe from Rumba, and Sean Dumke of Knee High Stocking Co. and Witness are also behind the bar with Haarstad.

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