Julia Momose and company were fortunate to establish Kumiko’s identity as one of the nation’s most unique bars when it opened in December 2018, about a year before the pandemic took hold and eventually forced taverns across the world to close their doors to customers. Those lucky enough to grab a seat at the Japanese-inspired cocktail bar were treated to bespoke drink flights, a kind of omakase for beverages made with rare spirits and ingredients inspired from the Land of the Rising Sun, including teas, garnishes, and sodas. Momose and her team succeeded in creating a unique drinking den that added to Chicago’s storied bar culture, and Time listed it among its “World’s 100 Greatest Places.”
The bar has been operating with a pickup window on and off since March 2020, but in August, Kumiko will finally welcome customers back inside for the first time in 17 months. There will be changes to its food menu of small bites, or “little luxuries.” August 6 is reopening day for Kumiko and reservations are online. Kikko, Kumiko’s basement dining room, will remain closed for the time being.
Under the direction of previous chef Mariya Russell, Kikko’s menu attracted critical acclaim, and earned a Michelin star in 2019 for its seven-course progressive meals. Russell, who has since departed to Hawai’i, became the first Black female chef to preside over a Michelin-starred kitchen. Russell left Kikko before the pandemic and took sous chef (and husband) Garrett, with her.
After Russell departed and the pandemic began, Kumiko began serving carryout-friendly Japanese comfort food like donburi and chicken karaage. Some items were based upon Momose’s family recipes that new Kumiko chef Emery Ebarle tweaked to complement the to-go cocktails Momose was mixing. Momose was on the forefront of lobbying state government to legalize to-go drinks so cocktail bars like hers could have a fighting chance of survival during the pandemic.
“The pandemic has changed us all — it caused a screeching halt,” Momose says. “... It is still going on and though masks are coming off and doors are beginning to open, the effects still remain. We are leaning in on comfort here at Kumiko with a menu that I hope will encourage folks to lean back with a sigh of relief and contentment.”
Ebarle, who worked with Russell, was an easy promotion: “I wouldn’t think of a more qualified or talented person to take on the role of CDC in Mariya’s stead,” Momose says.
Kumiko also has a trump card in Noah Sandoval, the chef at Kumiko’s two-Michelin-starred sibling Oriole: “I happen to be partners with, I think, one of the best chefs in the world,” Momose adds.
All told, Kumiko is heading into a new direction. Momose insists she “absolutely could” have elected for continuity with Kumiko and Kikko’s menus, but she thinks the pandemic and a new chef gave her the opportunity to realign Kumiko with her initial vision of a “Japanese dining bar.” The term is translated directly as “dainingu bā” in Japanese; the Japanese word for “bar” was taken from the English. It’s not exactly a izakaya, a Japanese concept with skewers and beer that’s now familiar to most Americans. Momose, who spent part of the pandemic researching different Japanese bars for her book (called the Way of the Cocktail, it’s out on October 5), says Kumiko will more resemble a Japanese-tinged version of Rootstock Wine Bar in Humboldt Park or Webster’s Wine Bar in Logan Square.
“I am so thrilled, and by no means is there any sense of the food being lesser than it was before,” Momose says.
Balance is important to every bartender and drink, and the concept is integral to Japanese culture in many forms. Momose seeks to translate the notion to Kumiko and weave a stronger connection between the food and drinks. She mentions Imada Shuzo Honten Brewery in Hiroshima where Miho Imada is the master brewer, and one of the few women who have attained the position in the sake world. Hiroshima is known for its seafood, including its oysters (Kumiko’s reopening menu will feature oysters served with a pickled canary melon mignonette). While sampling one of the sakes, Momose began jotting down notes, detecting star anise and fennel. Next to those observations, she says wrote down one word: “daiquiri.” And with that, Momose created a drink made with fresh lime juice, roasted hojicha, and aged rum from Martinique.
Other food-drink combos a include rosu-katsu sandwich using Kumiko’s lauded milk bread, pairing its crispy and “umami-rich textures” with a refreshing sake or the “Seaflower,” one of Kumiko’s signature cocktails made with Nikka Coffey gin, yuzu-kosho, blanc vermouth, kabosu juice, and lime. There’s also special rim that Momose calls “Ocean Dust,” comprised of salt, sugar, nori, and kombu.
Also look for an assortment of tempura and a salad with ponzu and yuzo extra-virgin olive oil.
Kumiko was able to to retain six of its 18 workers through the pandemic, but the experience has been tough. Though Kumiko has come into its own, the bar is “not done growing and evolving,” Momose says. Customers can check out the bar’s latest iteration starting next month. Reservations are available through the Kumiko website.
Kumiko, 630 W. Lake Street, scheduled to reopen on August 6.