One of Chicago’s oldest Chinese restaurants has become the secret location of Chinatown’s only artisanal cocktail bar.
Lily Wang, whose parents own Moon Palace on Cermak Road, debuted at Nine Bar on June 1, a dramatic new space hidden behind her family’s restaurant, with partner Joe Briglio.
“We describe ourselves as an Asian cocktail bar,” Wang said.
Both personal and professional partners worked as professional waiters. The last time was in Estereo, and he was in Blind Barber.
“We loved the freedom of being able to draw on our previous work experiences,” Briglio said.
They kicked off the concept that Nine Bar became a Lunar New Year pop-up at Moon Palace in 2019.
“The Lunar New Year is one of my favorite holidays that I always celebrate with my family,” Wang said. “But I’ve never been able to party with friends.”
“It just made sense to us,” Briglio said. “Because it was the year of the pig, which is my year, and also the year of Lily’s mother. So it felt like a nice connection.”
The couple pitched the idea to Wang’s parents, but there was some confusion at first.
“I think they were under the impression that we just wanted to have our friends here just for a party,” Wang said. “But we were like, No, that would be legit. We’re going to make cocktails. We’re going to sell stuff.”
“And it ended up being very successful,” Briglio said.
In 2020, they hosted their second Lunar New Year pop-up, called Dim Sum Disco, then the epidemic hit Chinatown first and hard with coronavirus fears.
“My parents were really down in business just because of the fear surrounding COVID,” Wang said. “It was just an all-out panic of xenophobia and the COVID virus.”
When the bars were closed, the bartender duo was out of work.
“Lily started posting pictures on Instagram of bento boxes, which were really just cooking lunch for us,” Briglio said. And people started texting her asking if they could buy it. I guess that’s really kind of snowballing into what Nine Bar konbini has become.”
The brand’s first iteration took off from there as a virtual window with great food and drinks.
“Because of Moon Palace, we were very fortunate to be able to share their space and use their liquor license when we started making cocktails,” Wang said. “It was a real collaborative effort.”
Two years later, Moon Palace became a completely redefined space, home to two new concepts. The former family restaurant has primarily become a take-out venue, with Nine Bar hidden behind what looks like a kitchen door.
But they brought back a fan-favorite sandwich.
“Makatsu sandwich,” Wang said. “When we got back to our usual jobs, we were bartender, people were like, ‘When are you going to make that sandwich again?'” “
Fried, breaded pork cutlet with american cheese and pickled radish.
The new Mapo Hot Potato was inspired by her father.
“My father’s mapo tofu is one of my favorite dishes,” Wang said. “And if you see loaded French fries on a menu for me, it’s a no-brainer.”
Spicy Pork, Spicy Mayonnaise, Pickled Peppers, And French Fries.
Chef Elvis Maugham was, finally, at Spinning J, setting up a pop-up for Khmer and Southeast Asia, overseeing the food.
Meanwhile, Nine Bar mai tai, from the original Year of the Pig Lunar New Year party, is a tribute to Wang’s mother, and the history of tropical drinks in Chinese restaurants.
“In the Moon Palace, they had an old-school bartender, with pre-made sour mix and juices,” Wang said. “But a lot of people really loved Mai Tai from my mom. I think it probably makes them really strong. Our connection and honor to that matter.”
They use the freshest juices, and make everything possible at home.
“We make orges with almond biscuits,” Briglio said. “We make syrup from almond biscuits as an ingredient to sweeten the almonds. Instead of the traditional orange liqueur, we use the Apologue persimmon liqueur made here in Chicago.”
The ultimate decoration adorns the drink served in tropical glassware.
Low-alcohol and alcohol-free cocktails are also on the menu.
“One of our favorite low ABV options is in the soccer section of the cocktail menu. It’s called Chu Hai. Chuhais, short for shochu highballs, are popular in Japan, and are often sold in cans with creative flavors.”
Their variation uses Xuzhou, watermelon liqueur, calpico, and the Ming Baijuu River, which is the Chinese spirit made from sorghum.
“It’s got a bit of a complexity from the bijoux, like a bit of funk, but it’s a beautiful neon green drink,” added Wang. “If you want to get drunk, but don’t want to go crazy, you can still enjoy a nice looking cocktail.”
Siren Betty Design, the design firm that subtly transformed the legendary California Clipper, created the New Moon Palace and Nine Bar spaces.
“The introduction is supposed to be simple and somewhat nondescript,” Wang said. “It’s supposed to look like any other takeaway Chinese restaurant you’d see anywhere in the country.”
The entrance to the bar is what you assume is the kitchen behind the counter.
“And then when you walk in, the atmosphere is completely different from the introduction,” she said. “It’s dark. It’s a little moody. It’s a small industry.”
Nine Bar is first come, first served. You are sitting at the bar or banquet. There is counter service for drinks and food, indoor dining only, butler will be available on weekends. On Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there will be DJs.
In addition to handcrafted cocktails, the new bar attempts to bring back the sake bomb with Asahi beer and sake upon checkout.
“I think it’s great group fun,” Wang said. “We don’t do chopsticks, but we drop shot glass.”
216 W Cermak Rd., 312-225-4081, Ninebarchicago.com
Chef Kenta Ikehata just celebrated the grand opening of his second restaurant located two doors away from the critically acclaimed Chicago Ramen. Chicago Sushi opens Monday in Des Plaines. Ikehata features what he calls three-second hand rolls, indicating when you should eat crunchy nori rolls with warm rice and cold fish. It also serves “red chili noodles” not on the Ramen House menu, with chicken soup broth available in your choice of spicy hot.
574 E. Oakton St., Des Plaines; 5647-813-847; instagram.com/chicago.sushi
Partner Stephanie Guerry’s family shared their recipes from Kalamata, the Greek city famous for its black-purple olives. Cala, part of the growing modern Greek dining scene around Chicago, began serving June 12 in the Park West neighborhood of Lincoln Park. You will find a skewer with pork, shrimp or kofta. The latter are traditionally meatballs, which are made from meat, but here they are made from vegetable feta. Plus the Greek burgers come with yogurt, which is a Greek yogurt farm.
2523 N Street. Clark, 773-560-6412, kalachicago.com
Cooper Hawk founder Tim McEnery fell in love with Rome – with pizza. The resulting Piccolo Poco Pizzeria launched its first pies on June 12 in Oak Brook. Collaboration with Romanian chef Luca Issa, who makes a unique Neapolitan-style pizza, featuring an unusual, very puffy crust, and it’s available in three sauces: classic red, with fried eggplant and Parmesan fondue; a sweeter yellow tomato, with four types of cheese including dolce gorgonzola and nutmeg; and white, for carbonara made with ginale plus cured egg yolk.
1818 Oakbrook Centre, Oakbrook; 8885-592-630; piccolobuco.coopershawk.com
Former Rye Deli + Drink chef Billy Caruso created a new concept for the hotel that took over the old Ace space. Silva, a rooftop cocktail bar, began streaming June 10 at the Emily Hotel in Fulton Market. Beverage director Christiana DeLuca, formerly of The Office at The Aviary, combines a Mexican-inspired menu (think chicharrones and queso) with house daiquiri mixed with Uruapan charanda blanco, a rum-based spirit, and Chinola passion fruit liqueur.
311 N Street. Morgan (at Emily’s Hotel), 312-764-1934, selvachicago.com
Chef and partner Mitch Kim, who had been at Toro Sushi, were back behind the counter. Japanese-inspired Sushi Hall opens June 17 in the Lincoln Park area, just a few doors down from The Wieners Circle. You can get a crunchy roll of spicy tuna now, but you’ll have to wait for the grilled wagyu nigiri to come soon.
Eat. Watch. Do.
what are you going to eat. what do you want to watch. What you need to live your best life…Now.
2630 N Street. Clark, sushihallchicago.com
Dream Burgerthe unexpected pop-up for the pandemic by Chef Curtis Duffy, ranked among the best cheeseburgers in town, will be closed permanently on July 2 in the West Loop, with his temporary home slated for demolition for a new tower.
The belovedThe cocktail bar, which features burlesque shows, closed abruptly on June 12 in the West Loop after nearly four years, and the company bought another hospitality group.
vajraThe chef-run Indian restaurant, which just kept Michelin Bib Gourmand status in the guide released in April, closed unexpectedly on June 19 in West Town, unable to withstand the pandemic’s social and economic fallout.
Do you know one of the new and notable Chicago area restaurants? Send an email to food critic Luisa Chu for firstname.lastname@example.org.
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