In Taisho-era Japan, Moga was the term used to identify a modern woman—a kind of Japanese Flapper. These young women took cues from their American, Chinese, French, and German counterparts of the time and worked to be financially (and emotionally) independent from men, while injecting the movement with their own distinctive style.
Bar Moga opened on West Houston last year, its name reflecting its mission of introducing New Yorkers to the distinctively Japanese take on the type of Jazz-era cocktail lounge Mogas would flock to. Consulting bar director Frank Cisneros leads the team as the only American mixologist granted a visa to train and work in Japan, and he developed a deep understanding and appreciation of Japanese bartending and hospitality while serving patrons at the Michelin-starred Uchu and the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.
With interest highly piqued and an expertly mixed gin cocktail in hand, we sat down with Cisneros for a lesson on the traditions and techniques behind the magic of Bar Moga:
The Daily Meal: How would you describe the overarching approach and focus of Japanese hospitality? How does it differ from the typically American treatment?
Frank Cisneros: Japanese hospitality is very focused on the interaction between just one guest and a bartender. It’s uncommon to go to a cocktail bar with large groups, and many only allow up to three or four guests in a party. Whereas in American cocktail bars there might be 20 guests or more for each member of the service staff, it’s not at all uncommon to go to a cocktail bar in Japan and see 8 guests with 4 bartenders behind the bar. This is because the drinks take much longer to make, and the process is meant to be as beautiful as the drink itself—the guest is encouraged to watch and enjoy the ceremony of the process.
This overarching concept is referred to in Japanese as ichigo ichie, which means “one chance for one meeting.” At Japanese bars, you have only one chance to get it right with each guest, so the interaction is everything.
How is ichigo ichie practiced at high-end cocktail bars in Tokyo?
A typical interaction would involve being greeted by all members of the service staff when you arrive. Then, the bartender will take your coat, seat you, take your order, and meticulously make your drink. When you leave, they will get your jacket for you, and if it’s raining and you forgot your umbrella one will be provided for you. The team will call the elevator for you (cocktail bars are always on upper floors of low rise office buildings) and ensure you depart safely. Most bartenders will famously run down several flights of stairs to greet you and walk you out to the street also when you depart.
Which signature Japanese ements have you incorporated into the physical space and service at Bar Moga?
Our emphasis is on Japanese spirits, especially shochu and whisky highballs, several of which are on tap. Bar Moga also now boasts a curated collection of nearly 45 Japanese whiskies—not only one of the largest collections in New York, but the nation. A newly dedicated eight-seat section of the bar offers an omakase-style experience, with a bartender preparing custom cocktails served in gorgeous vintage glassware and coasters on a minimalist bar top, free of bottles and tools. We’ve also incorporated elements of Japanese-style service and bartending techniques, such as à la minute ice carving and silent stirring, in addition to greater emphasis on bartender-guest interaction
From your newest menu, which cocktails would you say best encapsulates what you learned in Japan?
I wanted to include a small section of what people actually drink in cocktail bars in Japan which, coincidentally, are actually just American classics. Japan is a very traditional country, and they’re famous for taking other cultures’ cuisines—French pastry, Italian cooking—and perfecting them in their own way and with their own flair.
In the same vein, Japanese cocktails are very much the same. They’ve been doing classic cocktails for well over a century, and they remain basically unchanged from when they first arrived. There’s a fascination in Japan with cocktails that include Cointreau in sour applications, what we refer to as Daisies here in the West, and two of the most popular cocktails at Bar Moga are the XYZ and the White Lady. These are very much Western cocktails, that have been essentially forgotten in the West, but remain wildly popular in Japan.
When developing the new menus, I also wanted to have identifiable classics from the West done in a Japanese style. Most notably, martinis and gimlets, which in Japan are made with gin kept in a super-freezer. At Bar Moga, we freeze our gin, which results in a thick, velvety, and viscous mouth feel, as the gin is so cold.