My wife and I popped into Bar Oni more out of curiosity than hunger. It had been a couple years since we were inside the snug Tremont space. Since 2016, when its predecessor Ushabu opened, we’ve enjoyed interactive shabu-shabu meals and elaborate 13-course kaiseki feasts that eclipsed Michelin meals enjoyed elsewhere. But we had not crossed the threshold since chef Matthew Spinner reinvented the property as Bar Oni, which he did during and because of the pandemic.
Bar Oni draws you in. Through an open front door you can hear upbeat music, see staffers readying the bar and spy chef Spinner organizing his station in the partially open kitchen. The next thing you know, you’re knocking back kegged hi-balls, biting juicy morsels of grilled chicken off a stick and catching up with old friends. In the blink of an eye, two hours have passed, the skewer sticks have piled up and you’re already planning a return visit.
Second acts often don't work for restaurants. But Spinner wisely traded in his fussy destination place for a lively, convivial and approachable neighborhood izakaya – one that beckons night after night as opposed to just on special occasions. To make way for the transformation, management ripped out all the built-in burners, swapped in new tables, replaced and extended the bartop, hung some TVs and cranked the hi-fi. The new configuration allows for nearly double the guests but does so solely on a walk-in basis.
For a clue about Bar Oni’s intentions, take a gander at the cocktail list. Where else can a guest secure a pitcher of gin-and-juice cocktails ($25) that clock in at tipsy 9-percent ABV? Other draft hi-balls include house hard seltzers ($7) that go down like sweet tea on a sultry summer day. Fancy a cold beer? There’s Sapporo and Straub on tap, served in a frosty mug. Spinner still offers exceptional sakes, but does so through a rotating but abbreviated list.
In contrast to the rigid framework of Ushabu’s multi-course kaiseki, Bar Oni is all about freestyle grazing. We started with a few fried appetizers to pair with our cocktails. The vegetable tempura ($9) arrives in the form of crispy half-moon fritters comprised of chopped mixed veggies. The wedges pop after a dip in ponzu sauce. Octopus fans should not skip the takoyaki ($9), savory street food-style octopus balls garnished with mayo, pickled ginger and bonito flakes.
Another round of beverages – this time a Daiginjo sake from the Ishikawa Prefecture ($15) and a Junmai from Tochigi ($13) – demanded another volley of snacks. We polished off a plate of succulent shrimp shumei ($9) served atop a pool of sweet and spicy mayo and another of deep-fried vegetable gyoza ($9) with sesame-wasabi dipping sauce. Like all the appetizers, these are not tiny, precious servings, but rather eight- or nine-piece orders. It’s hard to describe how simple but compelling the grilled avocado ($4) is. Halved, pitted, grilled to nearly black and filled with citrusy ponzu sauce, the creamy, pudding-soft flesh is a revelation.
For the main event, we decided to split the omakase ($50), a chef-picked selection of 10 grilled items. The mix of vegetable and meat kebabs arrive in rapid-fire fashion, still smoldering from the charcoal fire. There is a trio of colorful baby sweet peppers, blistered and slicked with fish sauce. A half dozen okra are threaded onto a pair of skewers like a wooden raft, grilled and gilded with chili crisp. An ear of summer-sweet corn on the cob is glossy with melted butter. A twist of braised, glazed and grilled pork belly is ringed with fat and drippy with a sticky-sweet sauce. Grilled unagi (eel) is rich, buttery and lush. But yakitori is all about the bird. Spinner dispatches skewers laced with juicy pieces of breast, thigh, leg and tender, each basted with its own sauce. The stripped, bare skewers get plopped into a nearby glass where they begin to multiply.
For less than the price of one shabu-shabu meal at Ushabu, two of us ate and drank to our heart’s content, vowing to return sooner rather than later. It’s impossible not to get swept up into communal spirit of the place, where the chef’s booming voice careens off the walls, the bartender is always an arm’s length away and another skewer or three can be summoned with ease. True izakayas are all about the vibe and Bar Oni nails it on every level. If there is a more appropriate place to celebrate the post-pandemic future, I have yet to stumble out of it.
2173 Professor Ave., Cleveland