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Thoughts on Service with Julia Momose

A woman pouring from two mixing glasses into two cups
The Kyoto native and Aviary alum helped open GreenRiver, the latest from Union Square Hospitality and the Dead Rabbit team, this past fall. Photo: Anthony Tahlier.

It was during a customer service training in her hometown of Kyoto, Japan, that GreenRiver bartender Julia Momose learned one of the industry’s most important skills: to smile. “In Japan, people really don’t smile that much — it’s very reserved,” she says. “But I remember the instructor saying, ‘no matter what you’re doing — you may have to sneeze or take out the trash — remember the guest can see you, so you should always have a pleasant expression on your face.”

She’s carried that bit of advice with her throughout her roles, from a cocktail waitress gig in upstate New York, to serving as head bartender at Chicago’s Aviary — a position she acquired thanks, in part, to a patron at a bar in Baltimore. When they noticed Momose smoking tea and encapsulating the vapors for a cocktail she was working on, they asked her to look into the Chicago cocktail playground. A stage and a couple of flights later, and she was on board.

Woman in a black dress, seated and smilingFor Momose, each individual part of the guest's experience — from the garnish to the time it takes to get a Manhattan — is crucial to a bar's success. Photo by Galdones Photography.

Of all of the bars that Momose could’ve been smiling behind, go figure that she found her way to America’s only drink-making destination where there’s no bar, at all — the service team is separated from guests by a floor to ceiling wire “cage.” And though Momose appreciated the prospects of whiskey-encapsulating ice cubes and liquid nitrogen-accompanied libations, she took the job for another outlet entirely: The Office, The Aviary’s subterranean speakeasy. It differs from its sister bar not only in capacity and accessibility (at one point, you needed an invitation for the 14-seat spot), but also in its biggest draw, a selection of rare and vintage spirits and classic cocktail riffs, fine-tuned to perfection.

“I definitely grew a lot there because for a year, there was no menu — it was essentially a conversation,” she says. It was one Momose had to mentally and physically prepare for when running back and forth between the two floors on busy nights, consciously stopping herself at the Office’s door to take in a deep, calming breath for the shift in environments. Though time was fleeting all around her, she knew that inside those doors it was about halting ticking minutes for her patrons — even if they were sixth in line for a Manhattan. “There’d be moments where I could take my time and elongate the pour and make everything beautiful and last longer, but then there would be times where there’d be eight guests waiting for cocktails, and we’d have to move very quickly and efficiently,” she says. “It’s all about being able to make time stand still — to move fluidly but effectively.”

She aims to do the same at GreenRiver, a collaboration between The Best Bar in the World Hospitality and Union Square Events that she helped open in Chicago’s River East this fall. Take the highball menu, for example: a list meant to showcase the art of the Japanese highball, with meticulously chipped ice made perfectly for the glassware. “It’s not just about dumping everything in all at once — it’s about taking a beautiful, clean highball glass, adding a little bit of liquid, a little bit of ice, a little more liquid, a little more ice,” Momose explains. “The way in which it’s all built — the noise the ice makes when it falls upon the other ice in the glass — helps to call everyone to be in the moment.”

Close-up of a highball glass with whiskey and soda GreenRiver's Japanese highball is meticulously crafted, from glassware to ice to the spirits inside. Photo: Anthony Tahlier.

She spent two weeks in New York working with The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry to develop the cocktail menu at GreenRiver. Though it’s meant to celebrate Irish-American heritage, as evidenced by key ingredients (think rye, corn, juniper, and so on) that correspond with historic Chicago personalities, the menu expresses another one, as well: that of Momose. The Gray Wolf, for example, a stirring of Yamazaki 12-year single malt Japanese whisky, Benedictine, and Japanese plum vinegar, is a nod to her time in Japan.

Because it’s quickly received, she also connects with the Firefox: a light and herbaceous concoction of High West Silver Western Oat Whiskey, falernum, bay leaf, and black peppercorn, which is garnished with feathery fennel leaves and a peppercorn tincture. For Momose, garnishes are crucial, and that’s thanks to the adage she upholds everyday in her work: “everything matters.”

“When 10 people go to a bar, one person notices one thing, two people might notice something else, and so on, meaning that as a collective unit, those guests will see everything,” she says.

“That’s why it’s important that everything is as it should be — it’s something I was always taught, something I saw for myself, and something now I truly believe.”

Four cocktails lined up on a restaurant tableGreenRiver's cocktail menu is meant to celebrate Chicago's Irish-American heritage, but Momose has put her own spin on a few of the drinks—like the Firefox (far left). Photo: Galdones Photography.

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