Partners William Tsui, Raymond Gee and Jeremy Chiu are ramping up for the April 7 reopening of their Uptown Oakland bar, Viridian.
Their swanky, Asian-inflected cocktail spot originally opened on Feb. 4, 2020, a little more than a month before the pandemic struck. In that first, six-week stint, the team of young, Asian American fine-dining folks (who have combined past experience at lauded establishments like Lazy Bear, Rich Table, Hakkasan and Mina Group) impressed with their fun, new concept: innovative drinks made with technical skill and panache, paired with equally well-executed Asian desserts in a hyper-stylized setting. But COVID-19 killed the momentum they had just been starting to build, leaving the owners constantly pivoting for the next year, trying whatever they could to just stay afloat.
“This past year, we’ve been a bottle shop, we’ve sold cocktails to-go, we’ve been a bakery for a second… We did virtual events as well,” said Tsui. “We did anything and everything to survive the pandemic.”
Unlike some East Bay bar owners who’ve decided to forgo allowing people inside, as bars that serve food can under orange tier guidelines (at 50% capacity, or in Viridian’s case, a total of 25 people), owner-bar director Tsui said he is optimistic and excited. With his staff fully vaccinated, Tsui feels confident about the decision to welcome people back.
While dining indoors is not for everyone, Tsui and the rest of the Viridian will have a whole new menu of offerings to tempt and delight those guests who have decided they are ready.
When Viridian first opened with its cocktails and dessert-driven concept, its kitchen was designed for making sweets only. That meant, the kitchen had an oven, a fryer, a griddle and a salamander broiler. If the pastry chefs needed to cook something, there was an induction top, but not a full stove.
But a constant refrain from early visitors was a desire for more savory menu items. Viridian’s pastry chefs at the time (executive chef Amanda Hoang and consulting chef Alice Kim) offered a few non-sweet dim sum bites, like a steamed milk bun and salt and pepper chicken nuggets, but customers craved even more. Tsui said he and his partners took that feedback to heart, and during Viridian’s downtime, they revamped the kitchen to be more versatile. And they hired two new chefs: George Meza, who last worked at San Francisco’s Onsen, joins Viridian as executive chef; Vince Soriano Bugtong, formerly of Mourad, takes on the role of executive pastry chef.
Meza only started as executive chef a few days before Viridian’s friends-and-family soft reopening, but that’s all the time he needed to whip up a menu of 10 dishes. Tsui said he tasked Meza with making “food that was nostalgic and delicious,” which for him, meant noodles and wontons. All three owners are Asian Americans, born and raised in Oakland, and they’ve made it a point to spend more time and money in Chinatown. They partnered with Yuen Hop Noodle Company, which makes all of Viridian’s potsticker and wonton wrappers and its noodles.
A few standouts on Viridian’s new savory menu include a Chicken Wontons Katsuo ($14), four dumplings that come in a black vinegar dashi broth with a topping of chile crisp and fragrant herbs; a prawn chawanmushi, ($14) a delicate Japanese egg custard containing mushrooms and yuzu gel; Sunchoke Maitake Potstickers ($14) with chicken jus and shiso oil; and Tsui’s personal favorite, Tempura Marble Okonomiyaki ($13), or savory Japanese pancake. Instead of pan-frying, Meza uses a deep fryer for his version of the dish, and adds in yuba (tofu skin) and marble potatoes. It, like many of Meza’s offerings, can be made vegetarian, by leaving off the topping of shaved bonito flakes.
“We have a good vegetarian and vegan following,” Tsui explained. “And we knew we needed to do something for them.”
One bar bite that’s a holdover from Viridian’s first iteration is its milk bread appetizer, which in the early days, was a bun studded with charred scallion, flavored with chili garlic and topped with sesame seeds. Now, it’s an allium milk bread toast ($6) served with buttermilk miso curd.
Soriano Bugtong has come up with four desserts, each sounding more intriguing than the next, such as the Thai Tea Boba Bowl ($11), a granita with condensed milk anglaise, burnt honey custard and peanut meringue, and the Mango Mousse ($9), which features creme fraiche shiso ice cream, vanilla cake, cara cara orange, citrus peel puree and Thai bird chile.
Both savory and sweet dishes are meant to be ordered family-style. Tsui recommends that each person order 2-3 savory items for a satisfying meal.
As for the cocktails (all priced at $13), almost every single drink on Viridian’s menu is brand new, save for their most popular drink, the Tomato Beef, a savory, sophisticated cocktail that gets its name from a combination of housemade tomato water and tallow-washed tequila. The addition of basil eau de vie ties the drink together.
Aside from that staple, Viridian’s drinks menu will change frequently. Its opening menu features quaffables like the Sibley Gimlet, an ode to spring and the East Bay hills, featuring fragrant local sage; Yuzu Bamboo, a savory, wine-based cocktail made with Shaoxing wine (the drinking, not the cooking, kind) infused with yuzu, house-blended vermouth and a little bit of sesame oil; and Baijiu Groni, Tsui’s take on the classic Negroni, featuring Baiju, China’s national drink, a clear, distilled spirit that’s usually made with sorghum.
Tsui said he was drawn to Baijiu because he grew up watching his uncles drink it. “It speaks to who we are as people,” he said of the spirit, which is both stiff and pungent. For the Baijiu Groni, Tsui blends the spirit with Roku gin, house vermouth, a blend of Italian bitters and Creme de Banane. But he said some Viridian customers have come to appreciate the spirit in its virgin form, ordering it neat.
Viridian’s focus is cocktails, but it also offers a robust wine menu, including many selections — in a range of prices — from Austria, Spain and Portugal. There are also three beers (one local, the West Coast IPA from Temescal Brewing; a Chinese lager and a Belgian sour) and coffee and tea.
Like its food and cocktail offerings, Viridian’s decor strikes a balance between modern and nostalgic. Colorful neon lights and hanging pendant lamps are futuristic, but harken back to the ’80s and in particular, new wave Hong Kong, as depicted through the lens of filmmaker Wong Kar Wai. Juxtaposed with the dark black bar, the bright lights give Viridian an edgy, moody and romantic feel.
During the bar’s closure, the owners made a few adjustments with COVID-19 safety measures in mind. They turned to Laura Stevenson, the lighting artist who designed Viridian’s original neon and back bar lighting, to create the new features because she was already familiar with their aesthetic. Her pill-shaped plastic barriers, what Tsui jokingly called “Rona Resistors,” are now placed between Viridian’s floating tables and at the bar.
“We’re thinking of expanding some tables to seat more people down the line,” he said. “In the meantime, it’s still the bar, restaurant and cocktail space that people enjoyed for a brief moment in time last year.”
“We’re just excited to reopen and allow people to come in again.”