She's worked behind the bar at well-regarded places like The Aviary and Green River. But now she's running the show and says every perfectly balanced drink comes with a backstory.
EXTRA COURSE: Desserts at Kumiko
Watching Julia Momose work behind the bar at Kumiko, which maintains a sign-less existence at the northeast corner of Lake Street and Des Plaines, is like watching Yo Yo Ma play the cello. There is focused intensity, combined with precision, and yet a sense of ease, resulting in something beautiful. In this case, cocktails.
"Kumiko is a bar, greatly influenced by my personal heritage growing up in Japan. But it's also the story of people creating things," Momose said.
You can sit in the dining room and order a la carte, including bites from the kitchen like an elegant mackerel platter, accompanied by umami-rich bonito - that prized smoked-and-dried tuna found throughout Japan.
A crunchy, tempura-fried prawn is crowned with tiny herbs, paired, perhaps, with the Sea Flower, a drink with a rim that's dragged through salt, sugar and two types of dried seaweed.
Then fresh lime juice, some melon-y, citrus-y kabosu juice from Japan; yuzu kosho syrup and simple syrup (that's just sugar water) - plus, a bianco vermouth and some Nikka Coffey gin from Japan.
Ice is added, with the aid of a vintage, scalloped julep strainer, then Momose shakes the drink until it reaches the proper dilution point. Strained then garnished with some micro shiso leaves, it's a small window into her method.
At the bar, where it's a tasting menu only twice a night, you'll see five courses, each paired with a drink.
Fried bonito makes its way onto a tiny maki roll with caviar. Delicate mackerel slices are plated next to lemon zest-kissed seaweed. If a food course is savory, warm and lush, Momose will offer a bright counterpoint, like a Kinjo martini.
"We call it the Kinjo martini very loosely. It's made with Kinjo - a 100 percent rice shochu from Southern Japan that they age in three different barrels - cognac, sherry and ex-American whisky. Along with that a little apricot eau de vie and then a 3-year aged sake - Hakkaisan Kimuro - coming from Nigata," Momose said.
Momose's precision is admirable. Few bartenders take this much care. Just notice the little things, like every time a bottle is poured, its lip is quickly wiped off; the way citrus is cut, and the technique used to express its natural oils over the rim; or the hand-carved ice.
It's one thing using perfect, 2-inch blocks you can see through, but watch as she lets the cube temper a bit, then cuts it into a diamond shape so it perfectly fits the glass. It's one of many details that do not escape this shokunin's watchful eye.
"The movements being very precise. Showcasing the bottle, should people like to look at them. But also overall, just being present and if someone wants to get into a conversation about the ingredients, we can do so. Or if they just want to drink and relax and not be bothered, they can do that as well," Momose said.
You need reservations to dine here at the bar for the omakase tasting. There are two seatings a night for that. But you could just walk in and sit at a table. If you do, just be sure to order one of Julia's cocktails. Kampai.
630 W. Lake St., Chicago