You step back in time–and across a good deal of ocean–when you walk into Bar Moga, a Japanese-themed cocktail lounge in the West Village. Named after Japan’s flapper-esque “modern girls” of the 1920s, the bar has been touted as a celebration of women, with female mixologist Becky McFalls-Schwartz as its original concept creator and a wine list that features a fetching number of female-produced bottles. The guys, obviously, are certainly welcome–and you’ll find one very important one pouring the drinks: bar director Frank Cisneros.
Inside, both sexes will certainly delight in a beautifully designed space that marries East and West. Paintings of moga line the wall. A copper ceiling gleams overhead. In the glass, Cisneros, who spent some time living in Japan himself, ensures the fusion continues. American classics get whipped up (and arguably improved upon) with Japanese ingredients. Expect hints of lemongrass, yuzu, and plum, amongst others. And while we’re touting the booze, don’t skip out on the food. Japanese iterations of old-school Western dishes make for throwback comfort food indulgences like snow crab croquettes, salmon pastrami, and seafood gratin.
Below, we talk to Cisneros about frozen citrus, carving ice into diamonds, and the ever-important art of omotenashi.
How long have you lived in NYC?
Eleven years, minus some time in Japan.
Where did you live in Japan?
I lived in Tokyo, at first in Higashi Nihonbashi, which translates to East Japan Bridge. It was the center of Edo Japan–which I’m sure was cool back the day, with samurai walking around and all–but now it’s one of the two main business districts. A bit like living in the Financial District in New York: bustling with businessmen during the day, but boring as hell at night. I moved to Kabukicho in Shinjuku my last few months there and that was a lot more fun. It’s the red light district so it was never boring.
Favorite bar in Tokyo:
Takuro’s shochu bar. That’s not its real name, but that’s what we all call it. You could see people drinking shochu with a cobra in it, a salary man on a date with a hostess, and a group of gangsters from the south of Japan all drinking shochu and being wild. I can’t even repeat half of what I saw there, and I’ll never tell the actual location or its actual name. I have to protect it; it’s a national treasure!
Thing you learned/picked up in Japan that you’ve carried back home with you:
For all the fancy stirring and carving ice into diamonds, the most important thing I learned was to emphasize and study omotenashi, the art of Japanese hospitality. The Japanese make it their mission to take hospitality to the next level, and it really affected me working with my colleagues and seeing how much they care. It’s something I try to live up to and impart on everyone I work with.
Where was your first job bartending in New York?
I was Tom Chadwick’s barback at Bushwick Country Club. He used to throw frozen citrus at me. We would also do a cocktail happy hour together, which is hilarious since this was 2007 and BCC was already a notorious dive bar by then.
Where does Bar Moga take its cocktail menu cues from?
Nineteen-twenties Japan and the moga, aka “modern girl” flappers of Japan. I’m a huge fan of shochu, so we play with that as much as possible. The food style is yōshoku, a Western-inspired everyday Japanese comfort food and something I ate a lot at izakaya while living there. I try to take cues from things I ate or drank every day in Japan and incorporate them into the menu. For instance, we have a “Chu-Hi” cocktail on tap now, which is lemongrass mizu shochu, grapefruit, bitters, and soda. It’s a high-brow take on a low-brow canned cocktail that I drank almost daily.
How do you come up with the names for cocktails?
I always try to keep it simple. Three words at most but one if possible. At Moga, we name everything after a real or fictional character in Japanese history that inspires us for one reason or another. Like “Naomi,” who was the eponymous central character in a serial novel published in Japan in the ’20s. She was a Western-looking Japanese woman who was the muse of a common salary man. She served as a modern role model to the readers of Josei (“lady” in Japanese), which was the 1920s Japan equivalent of Cosmo.
Person in history you’d most like to share a cocktail with and why:
Share, as in a scorpion bowl with two straws? Bill Murray, for obvious reasons.
Most overrated beverage:
Nothing! There’s a time and a place for all beverages.
Song currently on repeat at the bar:
I’m trying to get more and more into jazz. I’m liking the mood of Art Blakey at the bar currently.
Best food/beverage combo at Bar Moga:
Soba noodles and soba shochu hot toddy. It’s freezing right now in NYC!
Describe your favorite customer:
Someone adventurous–particularly someone who wants to go on a Japanese whisky or shochu journey, since there’s so much to explore.
What’s your latest drink obsession?
Champagne. It always has been, but I’ve gotten really into it over the past year. I can thank my colleagues at Uchu for that, and my girlfriend who got me an awesome Champagne book for Christmas. We drank a bottle of 1990 Dom Perignon that day. I went to Champagne with my best friend at the start of January and brought back a lot of vintage bottles. I’m a little obsessed.
What’s your go-to drink?
If it’s after work and it’s just me at my favorite dive, Powers whiskey and a Miller High Life.
What would someone order to get your attention?
Yamazaki 18 Mizunara cask–I see you’re SERIOUS.
Where do you go for a drink when you’re winding down?
Sophie’s in the East Village. It’s close to my house, has the best jukebox in the city, it’s never boring, and the bartenders are some of the best people on the planet.
Best seat in the house at Bar Moga:
Seats one through eight, where we now offer an omakase cocktail experience. You sit with the bartender, tell them what you’re into, and everything is crafted for you based on preference. At the bar, we use vintage glasses, traditional Japanese coasters, etc. It’s more of a show. We rely on classic cocktails, but spruce them up with Japanese ingredients. Plus you can watch the bartenders carve ice into diamonds and spheres. Some of them are better than me at it, actually!
Best thing someone’s ever told you when you’ve been behind the bar:
Just simply: “Thank you!”
Header photo by Kuo-Heng Huang