The pandemic affected many recreational activities at bars — pool, darts, and bowling — anything, of course, that encouraged groups of lively imbibers to get close to one another. But for Win Son and Win Son Bakery co-owner Josh Ku, no bar activity was as missed as karaoke — the foundation for events he often hosted at his Taiwanese American restaurant, prior to COVID-19. Now Ku is making his love for karaoke more official by opening his own, standalone, full-service dinner place that doubles as an open-room “karaoke saloon,” he says. Located at 253 Grand Street, near Roebling Street, in Williamsburg, Chino Grande opens tomorrow, April 27.
“For me and my friends, karaoke is a very pleasurable and relaxing experience that we do whenever we can,” says Ku. “There are a whole lot of versions of karaoke that have their appeal, but I prefer open-room karaoke for what we want to do.”
Figuring out the right food to complement the karaoke bar in a city teeming with fun hybrid karaoke restaurants — like Gowanus Korean barbecue favorite Insa and Woodside Thai mainstay Playground — is something that’s been on the mind for Ku and his partners in Chino Grande, Paul Cacici, co-owner of the Italian Bushwick sandwich shop Carmenta’s (who’s also working on a forthcoming pizza spot), and general manager Erica Hall, an alum of Win Son.
One might expect Cacici to pull from Carmenta’s classics, but the menu instead veers into Pan-Asian and Latin American flavors, a nod to his time cooking at the Peruvian Llama Inn, with some Italian cooking notes. “It’s been difficult to figure out what to call it — but ultimately, it is inspired by the food our friends like to eat, the food we grew up eating, and the places Paul has worked,” Ku says. “It’s American food,” Cacici adds.
From 5:30 to 10 p.m., Chino Grande will serve a full-service dinner menu that includes starters such as a little gem salad with golden tangerines, furikake, creme fraiche, and hazelnut, chilled mussels with peanut, ginger, budding chives, and aioli, and a scallop ceviche with green strawberries, leche de tigre, and olive oil. There are skewers, such as a cabbage version with firewood soy paste, aioli, and pickled mustard, or one with chicken thighs, chive, ginger, and oyster sauce. For bigger plates, Chino Grande features a beef tartare made with wagyu, shiro dashi, pickled mustard, and nori. There’s even a whole lobster with Sichuan au poivre and fries. And for dessert, there’s a banana miso custard.
To avoid karaoke mics marked by saucy fingers and hands stained from cracking open shellfish, come 10 p.m., the space transitions into its more casual, late-night karaoke mode. Then, the bar menu, when it launches, will just focus on sandwiches like its fried chicken with coconut ranch or sword fish with aji panca and Kewpie mayo, to pair with drinks.
“I don’t see people doing karaoke with ceviche, so we have a less expensive, easier to handle late-night menu,” says Cacici.
Down the line, Ku says he hopes to extend karaoke hours until 2 a.m.
The cocktail list, which Bushwick bar Palmetto owner Blake Ventura consulted on, includes the “Pocket Sage” (gin, osmanthus tea, lemon), the “Chiquita Chinita” (mezcal, red bell pepper, and toasted rice), and the “Pandan Colada” (white rum, coconut, and pineapple), among others. In addition, there’s a tonics section on the beverage menu, led by Zoey Xinyi Gong, a traditional Chinese medicine chef and founder of Five Seasons TCM. “We are hoping to introduce TCM in a fun way in dealing with stress, indigestion, circulation, and overall gusto,” says Ku. He adds that though the team is framing the tonics, infused with vodka and sake, as digestifs, they can be made throughout the evening. Beer, wine, and Lunar hard seltzers, with flavors like yuzu and lychee, are also available.
Across the city, there has been something of a karaoke renaissance, as revelers head out to new spots like Dr. Clark, a Japanese restaurant that opened in 2020 that hosts a popular karaoke night, and Heaven or Las Vegas, another pandemic-era karaoke bar that debuted from the Mood Ring team in Bushwick.
With Chino Grande, Ku wants to join in the new wave of karaoke joints, with a space designed in collaboration with Luft Tanaka, who also worked on the interiors of Win Son. While Ku will continue to run Win Son and Win Son bakery with chef Trigg Brown, this is his first restaurant project without Brown. Ku declined to comment on whether this was related to earlier reporting of allegations of a hostile work environment (Brown is not an investor in Chino Grande).
Ku also wants to pay homage to classic karaoke dens like the 80-year-old Atlantic Avenue dive bar, Montero, where he sometimes can be found belting country music on his rare free nights. He’s especially excited to bring in friends to host residences on primetime weekend nights, like Amethyst Valentino, a karaoke jockey at Montero, and, according to Ku, “a big figure in my karaoke experiences, she’s a very gracious host and she knows how to create a good time for everyone there — the heart and life of karaoke in New York City.”