After years of bartending all across Chicago, Julia Momose finally has a bar she can call her own: Kumiko. At the newly opened omakase-style bar in West Loop, the Japanese-born bartender revisits ingredients reflective of her heritage and upbringing in Kyoto, featuring everything from yuzu kosho syrups and sugar-nori rims.
Before settling in Chicago, Momose got her start bartending in Ithaca, New York, while attending Cornell. In 2012, she relocated to Baltimore to gain more hospitality experience, first at Rye and then at the now-closed Willow, where she developed the bar program from scratch. After accepting a bar chef position at The Aviary in 2013, she packed her bags for Chicago.
There, she worked her way up to the top bartending role before moving on to GreenRiver, which earned its first Michelin star during her tenure as head bartender. In 2017, she began developing cocktails and spirit-free pairings for the tasting menu at Oriole. Not long after, chef Noah Sandoval texted her asking if she wanted to open a bar, and the journey to Kumiko began.
At Kumiko, she’s made a space of her own, where the drinks are reflective of her Japanese background. Her take on a Daiquiri, for example, includes hojicha and junmai ginjo alongside French Carribean rhum. Aside from cocktails, shochu and sake are on offer, and Momose hopes guests will garner an appreciation for them on their own, the way they are traditionally enjoyed.
In many ways, Kumiko represents the natural next step for Momose, whose interest in Japanese flavors and background in fine dining harmonize seamlessly at the new bar. But it also represents a more personal achievement for Momose, who knew she wanted to open her own place by the time she turned 30. She remembers the precise moment that cemented this goal—drinking at a nondescript bar in Kobe, Japan, nearly ten years ago, where the bartender hand-chipped ice spheres for every guest’s drink, whether it was a vodka-soda or an Old-Fashioned. That immaculate attention to detail resonated with her. “That really solidified that this was a career for me, and not just a means to an end,” she says.
Momose met her deadline—Kumiko opened its doors on the last day of 2018, and two weeks later, she celebrated her thirtieth birthday. “It took me two years, but when we opened, it finally felt right.”
So what does Momose do when she’s not reinventing cocktails with her arsenal of Japanese ingredients? Here, she tackles our Lookbook Questionnaire to share her weirdest hobby, her favorite bar of all time and the best thing she ever drank.—Tatiana Bautista
Partner, creative director and bartender at Kumiko.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
A sweet old lady with a sharp tongue and even sharper wit.
Best thing you ever drank:
The best part of a drink is the circumstances and the people surrounding it. A Campari soda at the bar Camparino in Galleria after a long day of work lands high on the list for me. The refreshing burst of the first Suntory Kaku Highball from a can that I get to crack open when I return to Japan after time away. More recently, a Martini sipped and shared from an exquisite glass with an acquaintance and colleague turned new friend and true soulmate at the lower level of SG Club in Shibuya. I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite whisky—Hibiki 17 Year, a stunning example of aging and blending which is no longer being made.
Worst thing you ever drank:
A vanilla syrup. We were testing cocktails and there was a pungent funky note coming through that didn’t belong. I started tasting through the components and found that the vanilla syrup had been stored in a container that smelled of fish. PSA: smell the container (and the lid) before filling it!
First time you ever got drunk:
I couldn’t tell you—that was not a notable moment in my life!
If you had to listen to one album on loop, for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Would you judge me if I asked for silence instead? The idea of songs on repeat for years and years is making my eye twitch.
What’s the weirdest hobby you currently have or have had?
I have an obsession with plants—growing, pruning, propagating. Is that weird? I’m weird, but perhaps I grew out of “weird” hobbies.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known five years ago?
You can’t make everyone happy, and that is ok. Also, you will be ok. What they took from you, you don’t need back—it is broken now anyway—you can start again and you will be stronger.
Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
People thought I was weird when I was devoting so much time to spiritfrees (composed non-alcoholic drinks)! In the cocktail realm, I was challenged to make a cocktail with uni. I make a Scotch and fino sherry cocktail with dashes and spritzes of nori, bonito and uni infusions, served with a little bite of uni with radish and herbs on the side.
What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not eating, drinking or drink-making?
When it isn’t freezing cold out, I love to be outdoors! Walking or riding my bike places. Traveling outside of America, when time allows, walking the streets aimlessly, discovering pockets of inspiration.
Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
“Make me a drink inspired by my skirt,” she said before getting up from her barstool and giving a little twirl. “Killed the dragon, got the gold stars,” was a phrase that came through on a ticket once, along with “naughty little kitten, stirred.”
Your favorite bar, and why:
Kumiko is my baby and I am so proud of what we have created here! Outside of my own bar, though, Bar Charleston in the tiny town of Ikoma, Japan.
Best meal you’ve ever had:
When I touch down in Japan I go to a conbini (convenient store) the first chance I get and buy a coffee, green tea, Kaku highball, salmon onigiri and a tamago sando (Japanese egg salad sandwich). This is the meal with the smells, sounds (of cracking open the highball) and tastes that remind me I am home. It is the best feeling and a precursor to all of the amazing meals I am about to have.
What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Depending on various factors (location, ice, glassware, product, bartender)—a Martini, a Bamboo (or, in the style of), or a highball.
Whatever Tonya at Rootstock Wine & Beer Bar wants to pour for me. Elsewhere, I lean in to what the team may recommend as well. Keep it to old world wines and other fortified beauties and I am quite content.
In a dive bar?
Scotch and soda.
Your preferred hangover recovery regime:
Preventing the hangover first, by drinking lots of water, preferably eating some really good ramen the night before, more water and sleep. Upon waking, more water, bacon and eggs, or tamago-kake-gohan (egg cracked over steamed rice) with green tea. Also, coffee and matcha—separately.
The one thing you wish would disappear from drink lists forever:
The last text message you sent:
To my dad: an attachment of a photo of a framed work of raden (mother-of-pearl inlaid into black lacquer) that my grandparents brought to America from Japan. The text: “What can you tell me about this?”