One of Chicago’s biggest openings of 2018 quietly happened after Christmas in the West Loop. Kumiko is the Japanese-inspired bar and restaurant with drinks from acclaimed bartender Julia Momose (GreenRiver, Aviary) and food from Noah Sandoval (Oriole). It debuted on Wednesday and reservations are available via Resy.
They’re still tinkering with the menu, but Sandoval said they’ll have more food available on New Year’s Eve and beyond. Reservations at the eight-seat bar are more exclusive; it’s the only place where customers can order the five-drink, omakase-style cocktail tasting menu. For $130, the omakase comes with what Momose calls “little luxuries.” These are small bites that complement her drinks. Sandoval, the executive chef at two-Michelin-starred Oriole, finds himself as part of the supporting cast at Kumiko.
“It’s my job to make the cocktails shine,” he said.
The opening was originally planned for the spring, and it snagged a spot in January 2018 on Eater National’s most anticipated restaurants of the year. Momose is a 2016 Eater Young Gun for her work at GreenRiver, the now-closed Streeterville cocktail bar and restaurant from the same group behind acclaimed New York cocktail bar Dead Rabbit. Momose left in December 2016 and hinted at opening her own bar. Two years later, she’ll now play with a selection of rare Japanese whiskies, shochu, and sake at Kumiko. Momose also is a big proponent of alcohol-free mixed drinks, and they play a big role at the new bar.
Cocktails include “Triptych,” (purple sweet potato, Armagnac, umeshu, sweet potato shochu, junmai sake), and the “Pepperberry Tonic” (Tasmanian pepperberry, sansho, angelica root, verjus rouge, Fever-Tree elderflower tonic). Kumiko will also serve Japanese whisky highballs that will change depending on the visit. For the opening, Highball No. 1 features Iwai Japanese whisky mixed with 20-year-old Oloroso sherry, and Q club soda.
The five-drink omakase may be intimidating to some, but Momose will tailor each drink to the customer. She’ll speak with the customer at the start of their visit to get a better sense of their tastes. And that’s what makes Kumiko special, Sandoval said. Customers could opt for a booze-free night, or they could drink a mix of spirit-free and drinks with alcohol.
“You’re not going to leave super drunk unless you want to,” Sandoval said.
Kumiko’s kitchen is small, but Sandoval built a sterling Michelin-starred reputation at Oriole. Former Oriole chef de cuisine Mariya Russell has shifted her focus to Kumiko and she and Sandoval worked on Kumiko’s food. Sandoval described Kumiko’s drinks as clean and refreshing, so customers won’t find rich foods that will drag them down.
The menu is divided into two. The first section includes steamed pork belly buns and capital oysters. Items from this section are meant to be ordered by the piece. The sharable section includes loup de mer grilled over binchotan. They’re also looking to add a short rib. Both will come with a variety of garnishes. Another item is a tempura carabinero prawn. They used the heads and shells to create a caramel sauce. It’s served with finger limes, and a yuzu sweet and sour sauce. They tested a variety of tempura batters: “Everyone has an opinion,” Sandoval said.
Sandoval advised that the menu will evolve. They’re curious to see how customers react — will they want a full dinner or is Kumiko just a pitstop on their ways to other West Loop bars and restaurants?
Dessert could be Kumiko’s biggest crowd pleaser when it comes to food, Sandoval said. Inspired by a trip to New York, they’re serving a Japanese-style milk toast with fermented honey ice cream, truffled honey, and shaved Alba truffles. They’ll switch out the truffles soon; they’re about to go out of season.
Cara Sandoval, the chef’s wife, is the general manager at both spots. With the opening of a second restaurant, Noah Sandoval doesn’t consider himself part of a restaurant group. He said he feels lucky to be backed by a friendly trio of investors — Tom King, John Bruce, and Joe Kaiser.
Kumiko isn’t beholden to Japanese ingredients, but it’s using Eastern philosophy, one of simplicity, to connect with customers. Momose has increasingly felt a bond with her Japanese heritage, and the bar allows her share that with customers. Chicagoans can now experience that as Kumiko is open.