Portland newcomer Bar Futo “radiates sophisticated confidence.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

My first experience with extreme cooking temperatures was in 2002. An engineer friend who dabbled in pottery asked me to help her assemble a makeshift kiln from a junk oven she had bought. My job was twofold: Build a plinth from flat stones to support the oven; and record readings from the thermometer as she increased the 240V power to the heating coils.

We got the oven positioned on the flat surface and took our positions. I watched as the temperature zoomed from “Warm” to “Roast,” then way past “Broil” until, at about 900 degrees, the rivets blew dramatically out of the rear of the machine like red-hot buckshot. Quickly, the experiment ended, as the back panel of the oven juddered and clanked free, like a fender tumbling from an old jalopy.

I’ve always thought of that oven-exploding heat as the upper boundary of normal cooking temperatures. A good pizza oven can hit 800 degrees pretty easily; a tandoor gets a bit hotter than that, and if you find the right (read: ultra-luxe) backyard barbecue, you might find a searing burner that’ll breach the 1,000-degree mark. But nothing prepared me for the 6-foot Japanese charcoal grill at Portland’s Bar Futo.

“Cooking with the binchotan is complicated because it burns at such a high temperature,” chef Ian Driscoll said. “It gets to 1,200 degrees F, and learning to control it is a major challenge. The charcoals are small: three to eight inches long. So there are lots of subtleties to moving the charcoals in just the right way. It also gets so hot that, every time we use it, the heat actually warps the stainless steel jacket around the grill.”

Driscoll, together with co-owner and executive chef Jordan Rubin (who also owns Mr. Tuna and Crispy Gai) have put together a skewer-focused, casual, small-plates menu that orbits around the superpowered binchotan.

Rubin describes the menu as “yakitori-inspired” and “izakaya-esque.” Both are true, often at the same time, and more than half the menu’s items are prepared using the Japanese grill. That’s remarkable when you consider that the 100-seat restaurant (65 indoors and the remainder on the Fore Street patio) prepares a few hundred grilled items on a busy night. Hot and exhausting for the entire back-of-house.


The Hojicha Daiquiri at Bar Futo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

It’s also remarkable that the kitchen doesn’t seem to stumble when the pace (and temperature) picks up. On my first visit to Bar Futo, I arrived late enough in the middle of the week that practically nobody else was there. Grill-fired asparagus, mounded into a verdant log pile and sprinkled with freeze-dried shiitakes for a crunchy punch of umami ($13) came to the table speckled with char and steaming inside. Exquisite, especially with bursts of salinity from ikura (salmon roe).

Ordering the same dish a few nights later, seated at the cool, natural-stone bar surrounded by patrons on both sides, voices bouncing off the Japanese-style, torched-wood (shou sugi ban) paneling, the asparagus was identical…and identically tasty.

Service was also confident and informed both times. “You have to try the duck sausage with hot mustard ($15), no matter what else you get,” my server insisted on my second visit. (I had tasted it on my first visit and enjoyed the heat of the mustard, although I didn’t find the dish especially Japanese.) Then, reaching over to my menu, he lifted the green strip of paper listing the evening’s specials. “Here’s where my real favorites are,” the server said, revealing a section of the menu called “Secret Chicken.”

Jordan Rubin explained, “It’s not really a secret. It’s called that because we ran out of room on the menu.” The placement also helps the kitchen pace itself with these chicken skewer dishes, some of which are offered in strictly limited supply every night.

Bonjiri ($8), a pleasingly fatty, chewy skewer made from the tail of the chicken (often referred to as the “Pope’s nose”) is a good example of the restricted supply. “It takes 10 birds to make two bonjiri skewers,” Driscoll said. “We don’t process enough birds to do 30 of them, so that’s another reason to have it listed as a “secret” item. It’s really first-come, first-served. It’s one of the best pieces we offer, and when it’s out, it’s out.”

The same holds true for the “rib meat” skewer (for yakitori aficionados, it’s close to nonkatsu), a crunchy cut of meat that glistens with surface fat ($6) and hidden pockets where Bar Futo’s silky, smoky tare sauce stows away.


About that tare: It’s not unlike a sourdough mother, where every night, after hundreds, perhaps thousands of skewers have been dunked, the kitchen renews it by adding chicken and duck stocks, grilled bones, red wine, brown sugar and shiitake mushrooms. Each evening, 25% new tare gets added to the remaining 75% legacy tare. After only six months since the restaurant opened, Bar Futo’s tare remains a youngster, but it’s already terrific. Give it time, though.

“There’s a story about one of the oldest yakitori spots in Japan,” Rubin said. “They had this huge fire and they sent a guy in for the tare that was more than a hundred years old. They told him, ‘We don’t care about anything else, just grab the tare!’”

If Bar Futo burned down (heaven forbid), I’d probably run back inside for the house-pickled seaweed tartar sauce served with the Osaka-inspired deep-fried softshell crab ($28). Battered first with a wet mixture of Kewpie mayonnaise and flour, then coated in panko before frying, the crab comes out brittle on the outside and delicate inside. Served “kushikatsu” style with springy pea-tendril crepes, the dish gives you nearly every texture you can imagine in a single bite.

Tsukune, or chicken meatballs, at Bar Futo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Maybe not bouncy, though. If you’re after a little of that, head for the traditional tsukune (chicken meatballs), made from chicken-butchering offcuts, aromatic green onions, egg, and a little chicken schmaltz ($12/two). The mineral, giblet-y flavor might have a niche appeal, but if you’re a fan of organ meat, this one’s for you.

The grilled fiddleheads in spring onion pesto ($17) could also be a bit divisive, not so much for the grill-kissed flavor of the tender fiddleheads, but for their strong, sometimes overpowering savory profile, due in part to kombu-salt-cured egg yolk and pecorino. Stir them into a bowl of noodles, or over white rice to cut that concentrated saltiness, and they’d be spectacular.

Twice-fried eggplant in spicy miso sauce ($11), on the other hand, is about as universally appealing as you’ll find anywhere. Crunchy cornstarch batter bits bob in the sweet, garlicky sauce, lending the dish contrast to the yielding chunks of steaming-hot eggplant. Fantastic.


Hot isn’t always the focal point of Bar Futo, however. Cold, sparkling Niigata sake with musky fruit aromas ($18); a roasty, tart hojicha-infused daiquiri served in a glass teacup ($13); and a martini shaken with glacial genmai-cha (barley tea) vodka ($15) are all wonderful and refreshing. Full credit goes to bar manager Bryce Summers for coming up with creative beverages that enhance the experience of eating dishes cooked at volcanic temperatures.

The kakigori, or shaved ice, at Bar Futo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

For the most dramatic tempering effect, however, order dessert. It makes no difference which of the restaurant’s Japanese shaved ices is on the menu – just ask for one. When it hits the table, you’ll need to move back a few inches. Heck, you might even need to cancel school and call a plow. Fortunately, Driscoll’s kakigori ($11) are not only gargantuan, they’re also extraordinary.

My dinner guest and I shared a rhubarb crisp version, happily murmuring about the buttery oat crunch topping, the vanilla-cream saturating the ice, and once we hit the vein of rhubarb compote inside, the mind-boggling tricks this dessert used to keep luring us back.

“We visited Japan together, and all the kakigori shops were closed because it was winter,” Rubin told me. “But we saw them and thought it would be perfect for Bar Futo because people in New England eat ice cream year-round.” He’s right. In Maine, diners appreciate hot and cold alike, and perhaps even more so when they’re deployed with equally impressive skill.

Grilled asparagus with shiitake, ikura and horseradish ranch at Bar Futo. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 425 Fore St., 207-956-7373. eatfuto.com
SERVING: Sunday-Tuesday, 4-9 p.m., Thursday, 4-9 p.m., Friday & Saturday, 4-10 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Skewers: $6-$15, other dishes: $9-$28
NOISE LEVEL: Percussion section
VEGETARIAN: Many dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, sake and cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: Decorated in a palette of natural wood and stone, brass and shou sugi ban planks, Portland newcomer Bar Futo radiates sophisticated confidence. Co-owned by Mr. Tuna, Jordan Rubin, this hybrid skewer-focused yakitori and casual, drinks-and-small-plates izakaya adds new dimensions to Maine’s dining scene and a much-needed mid-priced option for technique-driven Japanese cooking. Chef Ian Driscoll’s menu is made up of classics like bouncy, funky tsukune meatballs and binchotan-grilled vegetables like asparagus (seasoned with very nontraditional horseradish ranch). Everything really does come out when it’s ready (pardon the restaurant cliché) because the grill is set to a steel-warping 1,200 degrees. On the cold side, Driscoll’s rhubarb crisp kakigori mountain is as visually spectacular as it is tasty. Bar manager Bryce Summer’s ice-cold cocktails, especially the hojicha daiquiri, hold up nicely against the inventive menu.


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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