Episode 57: Japanese Inspired Bars ft. Bar Moga and Hidden Pearl
Karen Lin, Executive General Manager of Bar Moga, and Leif Huckman, Creative Director of Hidden Pearl, join us to talk about the Japanese influence at their bars and within cocktail culture in the City.
Kudos to Karen and Leif for pursuing their passions in hospitality and beverage. Karen studied pharmacy and was a practicing clinical pharmacist before she realized she wasn’t happy and made a bold transition to F&B. Meanwhile, Leif was working in music before his light-bulb moment at Freemans Restaurant, and was in New York at the right time to see the rebirth of the craft cocktail movement come to life.
Bar Moga looks and feels like Japan from the Taisho period of 1920s, when the “modern girl” became recognized. “A lot of our cocktails have both Western and Japanese ingredients”, says Karen. “We’re using some common ingredients in Japan, and we’re hoping we make them accessible here.” In terms of introducing the NY audience to Japanese beverage, Bar Moga also hosts Coco’s Spirits every Wednesday during happy hour. Kayoko “Coco” Seo, a trained jazz musician and Japanese beverage expert (the living embodiment of a Moga), features a different Japanese spirit each month in a fun and accessible way. For October, it’s Midori.
Leif, who is also the principal owner and operator of Donna in South Williamsburg, wanted to bring some of Donna’s tropical feel to Hidden Pearl, which is located in the back of Japanese restaurant Wanpaku. Looking at a Venn diagram of ‘tropical’ and ‘Japan’, he fell on Okinawa as an inspiration point. One to set the stage, Leif loves that The Hidden Pearl goes against your expectation of a dark speakeasy--you walk into a room full of light.
We talk about the influence of the Japanese culture and rituals in cocktails. Sure, the highball is just whisky and soda on the surface, but in the hands of a craft cocktail master, every aspect is analyzed. As customers watch the bartender intentionally compose their drink, the bartender becomes part of the show, and that is wrapped up in the experience.
As we cross-pollinate to take the best things from the cocktail bars in Tokyo and New York, are there still differences between the bar culture of these cities? “I think things are beginning to merge.” Karen notes that she’s seeing a lot of Japanese-trained bartenders bring what they learned in New York--some of that creativity, back to Japan. In the bartending world, these days it seems like the differences are how you specialize and stay interesting. “New Yorkers don’t want a Walmart, they don’t want a one stop shop. They want to go to the place that is the best for [fill in the blank]”, says Leif.
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