From the outside, newcomer Reception Bar looks like yet another drinking hole in NYC‘s Lower East Side—fitted with floating orb lights, shades of peach and timber, plants in the circular windows and curved doorways. But one night exploring the menu proves Reception Bar is a sanctuary for people tired of classic cocktails or even alcohol in general. Owner and self-starter Katie Rue has developed cocktails and non-alcoholic elixirs that arouse curiosity and use traditional Korean ingredients, and incorporate her childhood memories. With just a wine and beer license, Rue plays with lower-ABV soju. And though the phrase “soju cocktails” can stir up hangover memories (many spots in Koreatown favor sweet concoctions like mixing watermelon, soju and Sprite), it means something very different at Reception Bar. The soju here is used as a blank canvas, infused in-house with taro, white lotus or matcha (to name a few) and every cocktail iteration blooms with thoughtful intention.
Each drink is a small victory of intricate details, successfully showcasing something as delicate in flavor as lotus tea without drowning it out. And Rue is quick to remind that “Korean” or “Asian” ingredients can’t and shouldn’t be simply reduced to “elegant” garnishes. “Korea’s a peninsula—I can’t make everything so floral. We do have a little bit of grunge to us, a little bit of seafood-ness and like Korean barbecue,” Rue tells CH. She gives the example of Reception Bar’s ink cocktail, which features squid ink. “But I didn’t want it to just taste like salty, fishy. Those are the main notes that hit you in the face. I also didn’t want it to taste Italian, like squid ink pasta. I didn’t want it to taste like things that people have had before.” The balancer is nutty black sesame soju, with green plum syrup to sweeten things. After you sip squid ink, the scent still hits you in the face, so the toppings were crucial as they were sensorial fun: cinnamon shavings enhance the black sesame, frothy egg white adds a creamy layer to get through, and bee pollen on top completes the journey with acidity and crunch.
There aren’t many bars you can say this about, but it’s worth a trip here to not drink any alcohol. The five zero-proof elixirs spotlight Korea’s own superfoods—from ginseng to buckwheat—and cost about the same as a cold-pressed green juice. Our favorite was the Jeju Shield, described as an immunity booster, which blends artemisia (wild and resilient mugwort), mild Korean green chili pepper, and green mandarin honey from Jeju Island with more familiar lemon and ginger. Icy cold with a sweet spiciness distinct from jalapeño, it was enticing enough to order twice.
There’s no kitchen inside the bar, so they have tiny bites catered from nearby. The future of Reception Bar is bright: Rue has her heart set on eventually opening in the daytime. “The whole point is, I didn’t want Korean Americans to feel very fetishized and kept at the nighttime; I really want to bring it to the daytime,” she says of breaking K-Town stereotypes. “That’s why I don’t open too late and things like that. I want people to come here, appreciate it, have an experience, learn something.” And tapping into her California upbringing, she wants to introduce CBD options in the next few months, too.
Reception Bar is located at 45 Orchard Street, and open from 6PM to midnight Tuesdays through Sundays.
Images courtesy of Reception Bar