Chef David Chang opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 in New York City and his fame has since risen exponentially, earning him acclaim as a pioneer in the realm of upscale Asian-American dining. Over the past 15 years, Chang has added numerous other restaurants—most with an Asian bent—and has also made his first foray into the bar world, having recently debuted a drinks-focused concept. Momofuku Group is now a global entity, with 12 full-service restaurants in the U.S. and units in Canada and Australia.
The beverage portion of Momofuku Group’s revenue is growing, largely thanks to the company’s increased emphasis on the bar. Momofuku Group recently created high-level, company-wide drinks positions, including a corporate beverage director and a director of bar operations. Most of the company’s venues boast a beverage sales share of 30%-40% and some are close to an even 50-50 split for food and beverage sales.
“As we’re growing, we’re learning how valuable the beverage side is,” says Jake Lewis, Momofuku Group’s beverage director. “Drinks haven’t always been a huge focus, but our leadership now realizes their value. We’re definitely a food-first company, but the beverage programs are a crucial part of the business.”
Momofuku Group delights in pushing boundaries with its food offerings, and the company is taking a similar approach with cocktails. Drinks menus vary widely by location and aim to honor each venue’s food theme, incorporating similar ingredients so that the bar complements the kitchen. This is especially true for concepts that are rooted in cuisines from Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Colombia. The bars in these venues highlight unique culinary ingredients within the cocktail menus, creating continuity between drinks and food and an opportunity for guests to learn about special items at the bar before they tackle the food menu. “We tie our drinks to the culinary part of our restaurants,” Lewis says. “We use food ingredients and raid the pantry to build our beverages. It adds innovation and new flavor combinations. We really try to push what can be done in restaurant bars.”
Lewis’ bar teams experiment with high-level mixology techniques that are often more prevalent in top-notch cocktail bars, from fat-washing to clarification. While they employ advanced bar practices, he wants the venues to be open and welcoming and not so specialized that they’re off-putting to more casual drinkers. It’s a mindset that starts with the bartenders, he says, adding that the corporate approach is a relentless pursuit for excellence to improve each venue. “I push my team to always do better and not settle,” Lewis says. “The drinks business is becoming a bigger part of the plan and it carries throughout the entire restaurant. It’s becoming more advanced as we learn how to build better bars and incorporate more effective mixology techniques.”
Bar Wayō, Momofuku Group’s first drinks-focused venue, opened in July 2019 in New York City’s South Street Seaport. The space boasts waterfront views and a seasonal drinks program, with a variety of classic and specialty cocktails, as well as wine, sake, and beer. The cocktail list offers a Cimarrón Reposado Tequila-based Spicy Margarita and a Plantation 3 Stars White rum-based Daiquiri, alongside creative concoctions like the Harvest Moon, mixing Rittenhouse rye, Xila Licor de Agave 7 Notas liqueur, house-made charred carrot-maple shrub, lemon juice, and egg white, and the Red Cap & Speedo, comprising Barr Hill Tom Cat Reserve gin, Lustau Blanco vermouth, and Campari and Lillet Rouge liqueurs (cocktails are $12-$18).
Cocktails are the focus at Bar Wayō, but the venue also offers a few wines ($12-$15 a glass; $48-$60 a 750-ml.) and sakes ($10-$14 a glass; $28-$98 a bottle), including Akitabare’s Momofuku Honjozo, a specialty proprietary label available at venues company-wide. These join beers like Tiger lager and locally made Threes Brewing’s Slowly, We Learn saison ($7-$12 a draft pour or can). Craft beers—especially labels local to each venue—are highlighted across Momofuku Group concepts, and Tiger is poured at every location. Bar Wayō serves a range of upscale snacks and sandwiches to accompany its drinks, from Wagyu chorizo to roasted bone marrow to a lobster roll ($8-$52).
“Bar Wayō is a destination bar,” says Lucas Swallows, Momofuku Group’s director of bar operations. “It has a high-level bar program with specialty glassware. In a market like New York City, where we have so many restaurants, we wanted to diversify the offerings across Momofuku. Given the success we’ve seen at our bars in recent years, we wanted to see how far we could take a drinks program.”
Evolving At The Bar
Company-wide, cocktails make up about 45% of beverage sales. Wine comprises another 45% and beer, sake, and non-alcoholic drinks split the remaining 10%. Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle opened in November 2018, joining its older sister of the same name in the East Village. Unlike its downtown counterpart, the newer Noodle Bar has an advanced bar program that includes Highballs on draft, as well as a more in-depth wine list.
Cocktails at Momofuku Noodle Bar Columbus Circle range from the Mochi, blending Zubrówka Bison Grass vodka, house-made green peach purée, and matcha tea, to the Suit & Chai, mixed with Plantation 3 Stars White rum infused in-house with chai spices like ginger, cloves, coriander, and cinnamon and then shaken with Rockey’s Milk Punch liqueur, house-made chai-molasses syrup, and clarified lime juice (cocktails are $14-$16). Wines include myriad European labels ($14-$19 a glass; $60-$198 a 750-ml.) and are joined by a variety of craft beers ($7-$12 a draft pour, bottle, or can) and an expanded sake and soju menu ($10-$28 a glass; $48-$132 a bottle). All of this complements ramen and noodle dishes, as well as small plates like seared scallops tataki and fried chicken ($4-$43).
“Because of the variety of our concepts, we do a lot with wine,” Lewis says. “My wine philosophy is to have something for everyone. We have small lists with just five wines as well as large wine books. I want lists that have a point of view but are also accessible. We feature more independent labels and have room for funkier styles of wine. We aren’t beholden to one country or varietal.” He adds that by-the-glass and bottle sales are roughly equal companywide.
Wine is a major player at the Italian-focused Momofuku Nishi. Based in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, the restaurant boasts nearly 200 wines, with a focus on Italian labels ($14-$19 a glass; $48-$550 a 750-ml.). Organized by varietal, the list spans white wines like Vermentino, Turbiana, and Timorasso alongside red wines like Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese, and Nebbiolo. Nishi’s cocktail menu incorporates Asian-influenced Italian classics like the Yuzu Negroni, made with Fords gin, Joto Yuzu sake, Campari aperitif, and Punt E Mes vermouth (cocktails are $14-$17), and the restaurant lists a handful of beers ($6-$14 a draft pour, bottle, or can) as well. The food menu brings a worldly take on Italian fare, offering Szechuan pork tagliatelle and veal sweetbread with matsutaki mushrooms (entrées are $20-$68).
Momofuku Ssäm Bar also puts special attention on wine. Located in New York City’s East Village, the venue’s cuisine has roots in Singapore and emphasizes Gamay and Riesling. Ssäm Bar pours 15 wines by the glass ($13-$25) and has roughly 150 bottled labels, including more than 50 Rieslings and 25 Gamay-based red wines ($50-$998 a 750-ml.). “We feel the cuisine at Ssäm Bar is suited to those grapes,” Swallows says. “There’s a thesis written for every wine program and a narrative behind why the selections are there.” The venue also lists creative cocktails and large-format punches (drinks are $12-$19; punches are $50), beer and cider ($8-$14 a draft pour, bottle, or can), sake ($11-$15 a glass; $54-$62 a 500-ml. carafe; $85-$95 a 720-ml. bottle), and alcohol-free drinks ($6-$11). Food items are influenced by Singapore and include glazed ribs rubbed with katsuobushi and a sizzling flatiron steak served with a Shaoxing cream sauce (food ranges from $10-$45).
Momofuku Group takes on Korean fare at Kāwi, a fine dining venue that opened last spring in New York City’s Hudson Yards. The concept serves meat and fish dishes, as well as kimbap and rice cakes (entrées are $18-$69), and has the company’s most expansive wine menu with more than 300 selections ($14-$22 a glass; $40-$900 a 750-ml.). Kāwi’s wine list focuses on small producers and responsible farmers, listing a wide variety of little-known grape varietals, from Ebling and Assyrtiko to Trepat and Mataro. “We try to manage guest expectations while offering new and exciting wines from all over the world,” Lewis says.
Momofuku Group has eight full-service restaurants in New York City, plus four locations of its fried chicken sandwich concept Fuku and the takeaway food counter Peach Mart. The company has added several venues outside of New York as well, boasting locations in Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Washington, D.C.; Sydney, Australia; and Toronto. Majordōmo in Los Angeles has a worldly food menu and a 30-page beverage list. The concept offers classic cocktails ($15-$18), sake ($11-$24 a glass; $63-$238 a bottle), and beer and cider ($6-$54 a draft pour, bottle, or can), as well as a lengthy wine list ($15-$26 a glass; $48-$9,998 a 750-ml.).
The company recently added a second Majordōmo unit, called Majordōmo Meat & Fish, in the Las Vegas Cosmopolitan hotel. It joined the Momofuku Las Vegas venue, also in The Cosmopolitan. Momofuku Las Vegas has a varied wine list organized by varietal ($15-$29 a glass; $65-$9,888 a 750-ml.), as well as sake ($12-$24 a glass; $48-$88 a bottle) and beer ($9-$12 a draft pour, bottle, or can). Cocktails are a major focus at the venue. The bar offers a Suntory Toki whisky-based Highball and a Compass Box Great King Street Scotch-based Penicillin, alongside specialties like the Sweater Weather, mixing Tito’s Handmade vodka, sweet yam ube powder, house-made pumpkin spice syrup, cold-brew coffee, and aquafaba (cocktails are $14).
While Momofuku Group’s cocktail menus are personalized for each venue, there’s one signature drink that appears at every location—the Bonji Old Fashioned, made with Old Forester Bourbon, Angostura Aromatic and The Bitter Truth Orange bitters, and a house-made bonji tincture that mixes a whiskey base with Japanese molasses and Kokuto black sugar. “We focus on having an offering from within each drink family,” Swallows says. “We capture the opportunity to get everybody a drink on our menu. We offer things that are recognizable so there’s familiarity, and then within the drink we use specialty Momofuku ingredients. We want menus that are adventurous but not too obscure.”
Swallows adds that Momofuku Group takes a culinary approach to its methods, measuring ingredients by weight instead of volume, and implementing extensive research and development on new cocktails that includes input from not only the bar teams, but also the kitchen staff and management. “We have to make sure new drinks fit on the menu and meet each restaurant’s criteria,” he says. “We start by giving the drink a story and that leads the drink into the rest of its development. The thoughtfulness and narrative that drive the intention of the restaurant are found in the cocktails and the drinks program. We make seriously good drinks, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”