CLEVELAND — In terms of restaurant concepts suitable for pandemic-era dining, shabu-shabu ranks pretty much near the bottom of the list.
The Japanese hot pot experience is a communal one that finds guests lingering over a bubbling cauldron for a leisurely meal. Those meals also do not travel well.
For those reasons, chef and owner Matthew Spinner closed Ushabu in Tremont, reconfigured the small space, and reopened it as Bar Oni. Spinner likens the concept to a Japanese izakaya, which is more akin to a boisterous neighborhood pub than destination dining restaurant.
Now that in-person dining is back, Bar Oni has blossomed into a one-of-a-kind place that is suitable for happy hour, a light dinner or a nightcap and a snack. It's authentic feel is why it's perfect to satisfy your Japanese food craving if you're watching the Olympics.
The new setup features a longer bar, more seating and a more casual vibe. To drink, there’s draft and bottled beer, kegged hi-balls, small-batch sake and Japanese whisky.
In place of the traditional appetizer-main-dessert framework, Bar Oni is all about grazing. Guests are encouraged to order what they want when they want it.
"For those at home, izakaya is a blend of two words, right? 'Iz' in Japanese means 'to stay,' 'kaya' is how we say 'liquor store,'" says Spinner. "It was [about], 'How do we get these guys here drinking beer, drinking whiskey, to stay for a few more beers, for a few more whiskeys?'"
The main categories include fried and grilled snacks, including the classic izakaya treat yakitori. On the menu is vegetable tempura, takoyaki, gyoza, shrimp shumei, grilled avocado and a wide selection of grilled chicken skewers. The pork katsu sandwich, if available, should not be missed.
Spinner cooks everything to order, with the grilled items getting special attention on a screaming-hot Japanese grill. He says the grill is unlike any in the Midwest.
"We imported this from Japan," he said. "I don't think there's a grill like this from probably Manhattan to Chicago. It's what you would see in a traditional obanyaki or izakaya in Japan."
Vegetables, fish and meats like colorful baby sweet peppers, okra, pork belly, eel, chicken breast, chicken thigh and chicken leg are spritzed with sake, basted with sauce and served piping-hot.
Bar Oni offers locals a realistic slice of Japanese culture here in Cleveland. Spinner is an avid scholar of the food, drink and background of the country, and enjoys sharing personal stories about his time there. Whether you’re interested in learning more about Japan or simply enjoy great food and drink, Bar Oni is a great place to check out. You can learn more about them and their menu here.