Over the past year, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time at home, seldom traveling beyond the borders of my immediate Tokyo neighborhood. By January 2021, I’d slipped further into sartorial apathy and even began dressing like some of the elderly Japanese men on my block — in rumpled cardigans worn over mismatched athleisure. The only difference was that I had not yet fallen to grocery shopping in plastic bathroom slippers.
But with spring in full bloom and the lifting of the second state of emergency in Tokyo on March 22 penciled into my calendar, the desire to venture out — of both my house and my pajamas — is gradually returning. A recent sunny Sunday afternoon finally prompted me to don a skirt and a pair of heels plundered from the depths of my closet and head to Virtu.
The bar, which debuted last autumn on the 39th floor of the sleek Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi, adjoins contemporary French restaurant Est and is situated at the end of a magnificent corridor lined with books about gastronomy. The “library” conceals a vault that houses a store of rare spirits and barrels for ageing cocktails.
Virtu’s interior is a glittering jewel box adorned with art deco-inspired stained-glass fixtures, sumptuous Japanese textiles and dramatically back-lit bar shelves that climb toward the ceiling. Raised-platform seating, which looks out onto the financial district’s skyline, lends a theatrical air to the space.
The design concept explores the connection between Paris and Tokyo — two cities renowned for their cocktail culture and style. Organized thematically around seven virtues — ranging from Mercy (to indicate lighter drinks) to Bravery (the harder stuff) — the regular menu features sophisticated twists on classics, such as a fresh lime daiquiri enlivened with a splash of raspberry eau de vie brandy.
Prior to relocating to the Japanese capital, head bartender Joshua Perez’s work with food scientist Dave Arnold at Momofuku Ssam’s experimental lounge Booker and Dax informed his balanced approach to cocktail crafting. Next came a five-year stint mixing drinks at some of the world’s top bars, including several outlets in the acclaimed Milk & Honey family of bars in New York.
One of the most valuable lessons he learned from Arnold and other mentors is to consider all five of the basic tastes when creating recipes. “People often neglect the element of saline in drinks, but it’s so important for bringing out other flavors,” Perez says, noting that even a drop or two of salt water can “brighten up” standards such as the gin and tonic.
From March 15, Virtu will offer a line of spring cocktails to celebrate the hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) season. Based on the French 75, the Hanami Spritz is a blushing pink swirl of rose Champagne, cherry blossom liqueur and cherry-blossom vermouth with a dash of salt — perfect for daytime tippling. The seasonal Sakura Grapefruit Margarita is a delightful twist on the paloma — made with tequila, lime and grapefruit juice, along with a splash of cherry-flavored Suntory Kanade Sakura.
Those who prefer more spirit-forward drinks may opt for the Sakura Martini, a smooth blend of Suntory Roku gin — which includes cherry blossom among its list of Japanese botanicals — sakura liqueur and dry French vermouth. A single salted cherry blossom provides the finishing touch.
Excited to “experiment with seasonal local ingredients,” Perez is already working on recipes for April’s lineup of cocktails, which will feature green flavors such as shiso (perilla), matcha and mugwort.
“We also started making umeshu (plum wine), but with bourbon as the base,” he says. “It’s partly inspired by a French-Carribean spirit infused with fruit and spices. Using Japanese ingredients speaks to the connection between France and Japan.”
While watching the sunset, I sip on a drink called Haru Ichiban (which indicates the gales of early spring). It’s a light and fresh zero-proof cocktail made with Nema non-alcoholic gin, lime and sakura syrup, and makes me remember why I like getting dressed up and going to fancy bars in the first place.
The hour I spent at Virtu offered an escape from the daily sameness of pandemic life and the claustrophobia of my apartment, and I felt for a moment like a lady out on the town, with all of Tokyo at my feet.
The seasonal hanami cocktails at Virtu are available from March 15 through April 17. Cocktails from ¥2,500 (before tax). Reservations recommended. For more information, visit bit.ly/barvirtu.
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