To get to Fort Greene’s Japanese-inspired cocktail lounge Karasu, you have to walk straight through another restaurant. The black door all the way in the back of Walter’s (a popular brunch spot on the corner of Dekalb and Cumberland) leads to an entirely different and unexpected space with dark walls, blonde-wood screens, modern brass sconces and a jazz record playing. The long zinc bar has an art deco feel with an impressive collection of Japanese whiskies, sakes and shochus at the center. A quick perusal of the cocktail list shows additional ingredients like shiso and jasmine alongside chocolate bitters, cold brew and mezcal.
Thomas Waugh develops the playful drinks menu with these ingredients and more traditionally Japanese flavors. He mainly creates spin-offs of classic cocktails like the Nettai (a Mai Tai with yuzu and mandarin), the One Flight Up (a daiquiri with green tea and shiso) and the Thrice Rice that features a dash of Mexican inspiration with rice-cake-infused Laphroaig Scotch, sake, rice milk, cream and orgeat.
Bartender Chris Buono says the “most Japanese” drink on the menu is the Shades of Green that includes rum, mint, aloe and Midori. While the bright-green and melon-flavored Midori liqueur is sometimes seen as tacky here in the States, it’s actually extremely popular in Japan in part because of its distinct sweetness and color that also signifies luck for the Japanese.
Above all else, though, “[the ingredients] have to make sense,” co-owner Danny Minch assures, while describing the philosophy behind their combinations. “We’ve seen people just throwing a bunch of Japanese ingredients in a cocktail because they think it makes it authentic, but it ends up being just a not very good cocktail. We tried to find a balance.”
Minch and partner Dylan Dodd (who together own Walter’s and Walter Foods in Williamsburg) decided to open the hidden bar when the chiropractor’s office behind Walter’s became vacant in 2015. “It was such a special place because it was connected to Walter’s,” says Minch. “It just seemed silly not to do something.”
Unsure of the concept at first, the pair eventually dabbled with the idea of a Japanese spot, and a trip to the country solidified the concept. Back in Brooklyn, the team works especially hard to embody the intimate and sophisticated culture of a Kyoto cocktail lounge with similar service etiquette and intentional ambience.
Minch is careful to point out that in Japan most high-quality bars don’t also offer high-quality food, this is most certainly not the case at Karasu though. Shuko alum Yael Peet and Elena Yamamoto are in the kitchen turning out superior Japanese-inspired dishes like miso potato salad and a Koji prime rib eye for two. It would be misleading to call Karasu a restaurant, as it’s first and foremost a bar according to the owners, but you could easily—and happily—eat a full meal from the small menu.
“We just wanted to have a place where you kind of just forget about what’s outside,” says Minch. “Is it summer, is it winter? You don’t really know when you’re back there, and that’s kind of nice.”