Lunar-inspired Cocktails at Moongate Lounge (San Francisco Magazine)

Celestial Elixirs

What goes in a cocktail inspired by the moon?

If it’s the Deimos — #3 on the menu at Moongate Lounge and named for the outermost moon that orbits Mars — it starts with bourbon. Layered in are playful, inventive elements like oolong, an ancient Chinese tea; green walnut liqueur; black pepper; and a sesame honey foam that floats on top. As you sip, the foam envelops the bourbon, leaving a sweet, lingering finish. It’s delicious and utterly unique.

The Deimos is one of five lunar-inspired cocktails I sampled while sitting at Moongate’s gleaming amazonite bar on a recent Tuesday night. Chef-owner Brandon Jew and his wife, AnnaLee, opened the bar in March, perched above Mr Jiu’s — their Michelin-starred Chinese-Californian restaurant. While developing the concept for Moongate (located in Chinatown’s former Four Seas banquet hall) Jew gleaned inspiration from verdant Chinese courtyards, particularly their circular entrances, called moon gates.

“From a distance a moon gate frames a scene of the garden or courtyard,” says Jew. “As you cross over, everything being expressed in that circle opens up to you.”

The moon gate motif led to other design details: oversize geodes; a half-moon back bar lit with multicolor LEDs; statuesque velvet red booths and inky blue couches. A dramatic orb-like fixture hangs from the ceiling like a modern moon gate to the sky. “We wanted it to feel like a space that could draw some creativity out,” says Jew.

Along with six house cocktails named for moons, the menu — depicting the rotating works of local artists — offers seasonal cocktails inspired by phases of the Chinese lunar calendar, as well as aptly named appetizers, including the Chicken in a Space Suit and Salt and Pepper Squid.  From the summer list, we taste Start of Summer, with pisco, cherry tomato, zucca and cherry syrup (dusted with dehydrated cilantro powder) and Major Heat, with bourbon, cognac, chinato, cardamaro and pickled ginger. Each cocktail includes at least one Chinese ingredient.

“We take the calendar inspiration in a number of directions.” says Moongate’s Bar Director Rosa Lynley, who collaborates with Alex Kulick to develop the recipes. “Each phase corresponds to the environment: temperature, animals, insects…guiding farming practices for different times of the year.”

Sometimes the result is literal, such as with Small Grain, a cocktail named for the calendar phase in which seeds of summer crops begin to become plump. Landing on rice as their chosen “small grain” element, Lynley and Kulick designed the drink with sake, vodka, Cocchi Americano, lemongrass and orange blossom. “It’s flowery,” she says, “like the beginning of summer.”

Minor Heat — named for the beginning of the hottest period — is a play on a tea punch, with rhum agricole, Szechaun stone fruit syrup and black radish. “The ice cube is black on top, and as it melts the drink gets smokier,” says Lynley. “It’s keeping the idea of a drink we love, but adding Chinese ingredients that pique interest.”

Lynley and Kulick have the benefit of Mister Jiu’s kitchen at their fingertips, stocked with fresh, organic ingredients from local farms. “Sometimes we’ll just go into the walk-in fridge and ask what we can we steal,” says Lynley. “We’ll make a tincture, a syrup or a foam, and it evolves out of that process.”

For me the standout house cocktail is the Ariel, with vodka, li hing mui (dried plum), almond milk, pomelo and osmanthus. It’s sweet, salty, and totally surprising. Jew, who grew up in the Sunset District but spent a year studying food in Shanghai, sources the osmanthus from a favorite Chinatown shop. “It has an orange blossom fragrance to it, and it reminds me of China,” he says. 

While the lunar calendar isn’t something Jew had a strong understanding of growing up, developing his restaurant projects, he says, has helped him uncover some of the themes present in Chinese culture. “It all starts to influence my food — understanding the history and observing the past,” he says. “I’d like to expose some of the aspects of Chinese culture and be able to celebrate it again and have people understand it more deeply.”

Published in the print edition of San Francisco Magazine, July 2019

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