above: Moli’s short ribs – Photo: contributed
Photography by Andrea Carson
In China people greet each other not by asking “how are you?” but instead, “have you eaten? ” This speaks to the significance of food in Chinese culture, says K Dong, the restaurateur who recently opened Moli, his third successful concept on Greenwich Avenue (joining Miku and Hinoki). For K, who grew up in a Southern province of China near Shanghai until the age of twelve when he and his family moved to the U.S., Moli is the realization of a longtime vision: to serve authentic, creative Chinese cuisine in an exceptional space. “Food and hospitality play a big part in our culture,” he says. “This is where we truly express ourselves, where you go out and have fun. We’re creating good memories for people.”
For Moli, K has partnered with Chef Steven Chen to deliver dishes that balance Eastern and Western preferences with authentic flavors from different regions of China. Expect sizzling Peking duck carved tableside, salt and pepper calamari, coconut-braised short ribs, black pepper ribeye steak, lobster tempura, baby bok choy in miso butter, grilled maitake and other select dishes that made the cut after the team tasted more than 200.
In the front of house, there is a separate speakeasy style bar, Bar Moli, with an elevated cocktail program and collection of rare Japanese whiskeys that cannot be found anywhere else in our area. As delicious as the food and drink are, the location and the 1940s inspired décor—all designed personally by K and Steven—are equally key to what makes Moli special.
“I’m very old-school. I like classic things, vintage stuff. This has always been in my mind. Someday this is going to happen,” K says. “When I came into this building, I said, ‘This is it!’” The historic building, with double-height ceilings, dates to 1915, when it was constructed for a bank. It has since housed other restaurants, including Dome and Gaia. Working around the existing color palette and the archways—historic details that must be preserved—the design evokes Shanghai in the 1940s, inspired by K’s favorite film, In The Mood for Love. The rich décor with velvet drapes, brocade fabrics, a giant crystal chandelier (2,000 pieces assembled by hand) and antique Chinese ceramics recall colonial Hong Kong, a blending of Western and Eastern cultures.
“It needs to be a theater,” says K, who took out the glass from the upper level and brought in wrought-iron so it’s more like a balcony, connecting the energy from downstairs to upstairs, where there’s also a private dining space. “Everything here is about memories and classical details.” Moli means jasmine in Chinese, and the restaurant is filled with the beautiful flowers.
Being able to host celebratory moments is what motivates K and his team. “This is a hard business for sure. You don’t have your weekends and holidays, and you work eight days a week,” he says, “But it has become my passion, because we’re creating moments, connecting people.” He thinks even the most exceptional meal will live on in someone’s mind not because of the food but because of the people.
For K, memories of celebrations revolve around his grandparents’ home, where his mom’s extended family would gather, forty or fifty people at round tables in the garden, to celebrate the Chinese New Year with a family feast that would go on for a week. “No matter where you lived, you would go back home and then spend seven days together, cooking every day,” he recalls. Times have changed, he says, and people in the modern world are less connected.
But he adds, “The connection never goes away.” He teaches his team the importance of the guests’ experience.
“What keeps me going is this passion and that’s what keeps my team going. I want them to know they are creating something incredible,” he says. “You’re not here just serving food. You’re here creating memories and moments in someone else’s life.”
253 Greenwich Avenue;