Takuma Watanabe spent eight years as the head bartender of Angel’s Share — one of New York City’s most iconic and pioneering cocktail dens that recently shuttered — before venturing out on his own last year. And this Thursday, April 21, the Tokyo native will unveil his first solo project: Martiny’s, a Japanese cocktail bar spanning three floors of a renovated 1800s carriage house at 121 East 17th Street, located between Union Square East and Irving Place, in Gramercy.
From the moment each person walks in the door until they pay their bill, Watanabe is embracing omotenashi, the Japanese word for hospitality in which an operator pays attention to every detail and anticipates a customer’s needs. At Martiny’s — named after Watanabe’s favorite cocktail, but also a nod to French American sculptor Philip Martiny, whose studio used to occupy the space — every customer receives a warm oshibori (hand towel), as is Japanese custom, before proceeding to one of the three floors.
“We specifically curated different levels within Martiny’s to offer different experiences,” says Watanabe, whose decorated bartending career includes working under some of the most notable bartending talent, including Shuzo Nagumo of Tokyo’s Code Name Mixology, perhaps Japan’s most celebrated expert who pioneered experimental cocktail making, and Shingo Gokan, the visionary behind a number of the World’s 50 Best bars and also a former Angel’s Share manager.
Each of Martiny’s levels will encompass a cozy 450-square-feet and focus on fostering an intimate atmosphere. Jazz will set the stage for what Watanabe describes as a “relaxing and inviting” ambiance, precisely as it is done in Ginza, Tokyo’s epicenter for craft cocktails. However, unlike in Ginza, where many bars are designed for solo drinking experiences with little chatter between customer and bartender, Watanabe has styled Martiny’s to be a bit more upbeat. People are encouraged to banter with employees behind the bar.
The hyper detail-oriented nature of proper Ginza bars, including the hospitality, and the artful experience of sitting at a bar there will be mimicked here. Bottles are carefully positioned with their labels facing outward, and the bartenders wear white suit jackets as they shake and swirl cocktails.
Watanabe explains that Martiny’s is a “hospitality experience,” and “the setting is not meant to be a packed bar.” It is not a place focused on churning out a massive volume of drinks. In fact, Watanabe will serve most of his libations in Kimura glassware, the prized Japanese glass company acclaimed for their paper-thin, featherweight vessels that can cost $100 or more a pop.
When Martiny’s debuts, two of its floors will open to the public. The more-buzzy ground floor will offer around 16 to 18 bar seats, and Watanabe’s cocktail menu will highlight his twist on 10 classic cocktails built from seasonal ingredients, such as a drink he’s calling the Grand Martiny’s, made with gin, sherry, dessert wine, Cognac, and grapes. Drinks here will begin at $20.
Meanwhile, the bar’s more relaxed second floor will serve as a whiskey and spirits lounge, and highlight brown booze, along with rare expressions. There will be a selection of about 20 Japanese whiskies, including elusive bottles like Ichiro’s Malt Port Pipe and Mars Maltage 3 plus 25, with prices ranging from $20 to $300 a pour. Customers have the option to purchase full bottles and store them on site — a common practice in Japan. Compared to the more upbeat ground floor, the second level will feel more like someone’s private home bar.
The basement, which is slated to open in another month or two, will be reserved for private parties of 12 to 18, and is equipped with its own kitchen.
As for bites on the two levels above, customers can expect New American meets Japanese bar snacks by Masa and Eleven Madison Park alum Wayne Cheng, with a focus on seafood and raw bar options. Some initial dishes on the menu include chicken karaage topped with caviar and steak tartare served on a piece of toasted, buttered bread. Down the line, Watanabe plans to offer a cocktail and snack tasting menu.
Watanabe explains that when renovating his historic space that he wanted to honor the building’s past, and keep some of its original details, while integrating classic elements of Japanese architecture. Expect original wood and brick, updated with Japanese sensibility and refinement like charred wood and vintage furniture from upstate antique shops in Hudson.
While New York is no stranger to variations on Japanese bartending, from the pioneering Angel’s Share which debuted way back in 1993, to the more current wave of Japanese-inspired bars like Kenta Goto’s Bar Goto, Bar Moga, and Katana Kitten, none of these venues — the closest experience of which would have been founded briefly at Uchu — have really mastered the quiet art and hospitality-minded experience of sitting at a bar in Japan. Martiny’s is stepping in to fill this void.
“The last character of my name ‘migaku’ means ‘to polish’ in English,” says Watanabe, in explaining how he’s spent the last decade to become a cocktail shokunin (craftsman). “I have polished my skills and am excited to share my meticulously honed craft with the world.”