In 2005, when Audrey Saunders opened Pegu Club—her second-story cocktail boîte in New York’s SoHo neighborhood—she helped propel the city’s drinking culture forward with her craft concoctions. She also helped launch the careers of some of today’s most esteemed barmen, including Liquor.com advisory board member Jim Meehan of PDT, Phil Ward of Mayahuel and Naren Young of Empellón Cocina.
But ever since his arrival at Pegu Club in 2007, head bartender Kenta Goto has managed to leave his own admirable and subtle imprint on the famed bar. Night after night, he makes cocktails with an unusual grace and elegance, while upholding Saunders’ exacting standards. His talent hasn’t gone unnoticed: He was awarded the Spirited Award for American Bartender of the Year at the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail convention.
However, Goto almost took another path. “I was working at restaurants and wanted to open my own place, but knew I needed to build experience first. I found an ad on Craigslist for a bartender, and because they asked for a cover letter I guessed it was somewhere classy, like Milk & Honey or Pegu Club,” recalls Goto. “After I interviewed, Audrey showed up at the bar where I was working on a busy night. She told me I was hired.”
Although he had often paid visits to Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza district, where his father worked in the kimono business, Goto didn’t pay much attention to the many cocktail bars the neighborhood boasts. When he first emigrated to the US from Tokyo 16 years ago, he wasn’t in the hospitality industry at all but was working for Japanese-based businesses.
After six years of that, “I became honest with myself and realized I’d be happier working in a restaurant,” he admits. After all, he had good practice. Growing up, his mother ran an okonomiyaki restaurant, and like a conscientious son, Goto did everything from scraping iron plates to chopping cabbage and pouring sake for her—work he “always liked,” he says. “It’s not like I was trained by Jean-Georges, but I do thank my mother for letting me experience the restaurant world.”
Prior to meeting Saunders, Goto had in fact worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, behind the bar at his Perry St establishment. He also had stints at sake bar Decibel and the now-shuttered restaurant Barmarche, but it was at Pegu Club where Goto was able to hone his skills in a truly cocktail-centric environment. In particular, he discovered a knack for fixing the classics with a subtle Japanese twist. Take the Greenmarket Melonball, which reimagines the Midori-vodka-pineapple juice guilty pleasure with gin, cantaloupe juice, the Japanese soda Calpico and absinthe-like pastis, or his Far East Side (sake, St-Germain, blanco tequila, lemon juice, yuzu pepper, muddled shiso), an aromatic Saketini upgrade.
But after six years, what keeps Goto at Pegu Club? “I want to stay here not only because I enjoy making cocktails, but to build our team and meet the customers,” he says. “It’s nice when people come back to Pegu Club just to see me and have my drinks.”
Consider me one of them.
Alia Akkam is a New York-based writer and managing editor of Hospitality Design.