When celebrity chef Ji Cha left what was partly her creation, Moon Jar at 1636 Palisade Ave. in Fort Lee, the restaurant and wine bar looked to have lost its identity. And the menu, defined by an Asian fusion with a tapas-like culture, looked to have lost its mother.
But former manager and current bartender of the still standing wine bar, Rocky Chiu, says that identity is not only still standing itself, it has been reborn.
“The menu and some of the concepts changed, but we’re still promoting a fusion,” Chiu said. “Right now, the style consists strictly of a traditional Korean menu, but also blended with a modernist concept.”
The menu now contains an historic smudge of Korean culture: pork belly, braised and served with a side of kimchi, and LA kalbi, sliced, marinated beef ribs.
Both dishes go well with beer or a typical mixed drink like a mojito, but Chiu says adding rice wine to the meal is more compatible.
“We’re still promoting makgeolli and soju to go with our customers’ dishes, but making the old into a new by mixing them with lychee and fruit purees to make cocktails,” he said.
Part of the modernization process that Cha spearheaded was revolutionizing Korean rice wines like makgeolli and soju, which is stronger and more like a liquor, and blending them with other, fruity flavors.
With a bowl of makgeolli and the customers choosing flavors like pineapple, lychee or raspberry, the result is a novel cocktail.
“The business motto included from the very beginning making makgeolli for a wider customer base,” Moon Jar's current manager Victor Kim said. “When you make a cocktail with the rice wine, you taste the fruit but also the makgeolli.”
Dishes such as Korean beef sliders and Lamb Pho were removed from the menu since Cha, a former contestant on Chef Gordon Ramsey’s "Hell’s Kitchen," left the scene, but Chiu said that hasn't been a problem.
“We drew a mixed crowd of various age groups and not just Koreans,” he said. “We’re still appealing to all today.”
Chef Cha's Moon Jar looked like it would transition into more of a traditional Korean restaurant and bar, but Kim emphasized that its hybrid identity will remain.
“Although I enjoyed both concepts, they’re still considered as one,” Kim said. “The décor, ambiance, the crowd and overall modernist style reflect the beginning.”
The restaurant may have etched its predecessor out of the title role, but Cha's legacy of blended cultures and novelties carries on. Chiu and Kim promote Cha’s role as Chef Ramsey’s contestant on the fifth season of "Hell’s Kitchen," while reinforcing her philosophy with a modified menu.
The Fort Lee Towne Center Shopping Center houses not only Moon Jar, but a clothing store, a nail salon and a café/tea bar.
“This whole strip is based on a lifestyle rather than each store having its own identity,” Chiu said. “Here you can get your nails done, grab a cup of tea and then settle down with a dinner and drink at Moon Jar.”