Montreal’s downtown core became a little bit sleeker last summer with the opening of Gokudo, hidden sake and cocktail bar from Biiru’s Yann Levy — but it took plenty of work to get the bar’s offerings to the standards that earned it Eater’s Bar of the Year award for 2017.
The bar opened on Cathcart and Union in June 2017 as a space that Levy hoped would provide Montrealers with their first taste of Japan. Levy is fascinated with the country, and makes a point of travelling there annually. The bar’s meticulously-curated cocktail menu and sleek interior design are derived from his collection of experiences from those visits.
In fact, when putting together a list of elegant cocktails and sake drinks, Levy went straight to the source. On his most recent trip to Japan, he met with two well-known mixologists, Fumiyasu Mimitsuka (owner of Bar Mimi in Ginza, Tokyo) and Shinobu Ishigaki (owner of Bar Ishinohana in Shibuya, Tokyo), both of whom gave him recipes to use at Gokudo. Each cocktail uses at least one Japanese ingredient — think nori syrup, shiso leaves, or melon liqueur Midori — and an entire section of the menu is devoted to sake.
But the level of thought and preparation behind each of Gokudo’s colourful drinks is far from obvious. Each cocktail uses as few ingredients as possible, stirred with refined technique.
“In Canada, for example, if we read a cocktail menu, we’d be more impressed by reading the cocktail that has the most ingredients,” Levy explains. “In Japan, the emphasis is really on the product and the technique more than the number of ingredients that we’re going to put into it.”
And while Gokudo’s drinks are notably simple, the bar’s location is far less so. Gokudo keeps a low profile, tucked behind six-seater sushi counter or “fish shack” Ryoshi, with a black curtain separating the two. With minimal signage and wood paneling covering the outside of the restaurant, the bar remains hidden from the average passerby in the heavily-touristed downtown area.
Gokudo’s status as a secret bar is acutely on-trend, but Levy’s decision to run a two-in-one space was for its efficiency above anything. Serving fish bowls and hand rolls in the brightly-coloured Ryoshi, alongside elegant drinks in the covert and dimly-lit Gokudo, he’s been able to put together two distinctive experiences between the pair.
“[With] the kitchen in the front, with a different decor than the restaurant … for the customer, you’re exposed to two different vibes instead of one.”
The back-room nature of the bar is complemented by its underworld ambiance. Levy has inserted references to yakuza, the members of certain Japanese organized crime syndicates recognizable by their full-body tattoos. There are references to these men scattered throughout the bar, often in the form of photos and illustrations of heavily-tattooed man sitting upon black cinder block walls. Much of this decor is authentic and hand-picked, brought back from one of many of Levy’s visits to the country over the years.
“I wanted to do something that would be inspired by the ‘60s, and inspired by yakuza [imagery], so if you see stuff on the walls it’s probably vintage stuff,” Levy said. “All the elements on the shelves [are] stuff that [I] carefully chose.”
Appearing effortless is a challenge for every bar, but especially those as stringently-run and well-researched as Levy’s — yet it’s a fine line Gokudo walks with an award-winning level of grace.