Korean food is good for the soul and packs a heavy punch, but sometimes we want something with a lighter touch. For those of us who want to finish our jeongol hot pots with a little room to spare, you should probably walk past the main cluster of traditional restaurants in Ktown and head to Her Name is Han near Madison and 31st. You might miss it initially, because Her Name is Han doesn’t look like a traditional Korean restaurant. It has more in common with the picturesque, brick-wall eateries in West Village or Nolita, but once you notice the mostly Millennial-aged Koreans queuing up for a table, you’ll know you’re at the right place.Read More
I was feeling very nostalgic this weekend. I was craving a bowl of spicy korean ramen noodles, specifically the instant kind like Shin or Neoguri ramen. The bad thing about instant noodles is that they are full of sodium and MSG, which take all the fun out of eating them, so I had to come up with a plan B. When I browsed through the Instagram feed of Mokbar and saw page after page of ramen noodles in a bright and fiery red broth, I knew I had found the solution.Read More
High end Korean food is counterintuitive to the type of Korean food I grew up with. I would eat the food that my mom made me, or the meals that the church ladies would prepare every Sunday. The flavors in this type of homestyle prep are strong. The kimchee is intense, the mung bean daenjang is even more so. You can usually smell Korean food from a mile away, and when you see all the bright red and orange flavors on your plate, you know exactly what you’re in for.
Which is why I initially was violently opposed to restaurants that specialized in high-end Korean cooking. Korean food should be homey and inexpensive and a little messy to look at. Those were the signs that made it authentic, because that’s how my mom made it. But the trends in Korea are changing. The younger generation doesn’t always want to eat intensely marinated things all the time. They like cleaner, lighter flavors. And the whole foodie culture is big in Korea, so it makes sense that Koreans would adopt a modern, inventive approach to their own food.
On a recent trip to Korea, I had lunch at Yeon Ha Deung in Gangnam, and I was blown away by how good Korean fine dining could be. First of all, the space itself is beautiful. You feel like you’re entering an exclusive salon, and each party gets its own private room, so the luxurious tone is set from the very beginning. The service is also so much better, an improvement from the places in Ktown where the ajoomas can make you feel like the smallest person on earth. And most importantly, the refined and restrained cooking style is eye-opening. If we’re open to high-end and fast casual burger joints (Minetta Tavern $32 Black Label Burger vs. Shake Shack), then why not do the same for Korean food? There’s room for both the fancy and the humble.
The weekend lunch set menu here is a very good deal at 38,000 won (~$32). It comes with 5 courses, ban chan side dishes, a bowl of naengmyun noodles and dessert. Everything was so beautiful and delicate, and the progression of flavors from the mild to the strong was a gradual progression. The first course was a very light and mild soup, followed by a salad in bright yuzu dressing, and then a stunning presentation of raw fish “swimming” inside a culinary fish bowl.
For our mains, we had the pork bo ssam and the grilled steak. Bo ssam is usually a hearty affair, and restaurants in the States play that up with huge plates of fat slabs of pork belly ready for you to dig into. You get fewer pieces here, but the impact is no less. The payoff is even bigger with the ground beef steak, which was my favorite course. Koreans really know how to treat their meat.
The naengmyun was so refreshing. I usually don’t like naenmyun in the States, as I find that the broth tastes too much like cucumbers and brine, but the naengmyun at Yeon Ha Deung went down quite easy. What I loved even more was that I wasn’t stuffed and paranoid that my breath smelled like garlic, because, let’s be honest, sometimes a Korean meal leaves you in that kind of a state. I might have to shell out a few more bucks for the experience, but it’s worth the money.
Yeon Ha Deung Restaurant
33, Seolleung-ro 152-gil, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea, 06016
Korean food has really come a long way in NYC. Now there are actual categories to choose from, ranging from the traditional ajooma-run joints to the more modernized and upscale, and there’s even Jungsik, a legit Michelin restaurant serving high-end Korean.
Oiji, a new Korean restaurant in the East Village, occupies the fancier and pricier end of the Korean spectrum, but I didn’t mind paying up for the ambiance and the presentation. The space inside is quite gorgeous, resembling a sleek cocktail lounge that would fit in with the slicker establishments in Meatpacking. It surprisingly didn’t feel very Korean at all, an identity further obscured by a diverse hipster staff that seemed more Brooklyn than Seoul. I wondered if Oiji would take the same approach with the food, editing away the intense, hearty and homey flavors that are representative of the cuisine.
The restaurant is run by chefs Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku, who trained at Bouley and Gramercy Tavern, respectively, so it’s inevitable that a refined edit will take place. But it’s an entirely positive one that mostly preserves the traditional flavors. The slow cooked oxtail, for instance, tasted exactly like the juicy galbi short ribs that my mother used to make for special family dinners. It even held up well as leftovers the way my mom’s short ribs do, as I learned when I reheated it on a weeknight and kept scraping away the stewed bits and pieces.
They also didn’t hold back on the heat in the ssam platter. The pork arrived looking very dainty and demure in a small bowl, but one small bite of the meat had your mouth erupting into flames. You had the option of wrapping the pork in lettuce, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, in some very fragrant sesame leaves. I was especially impressed by the doenjang dipping sauce that accompanied the pork. Doenjang is fermented mung bean, which sounds as foul as it tastes, but at Oiji, I found myself eating this reviled, funky paste by the spoonful. I felt like I was eating a savory chili, not the gross stuff you see sitting in those old clay jars in your grandmother’s garage.
There were other things we tried that were a little more experimental. The jang-jo-rim, for instance, looked nothing like the chunky, salty beef brisket that I’m accustomed to. The brisket had been cut into very thin slices, which were laid on top of a bed of rich, buttered rice. Butter is not a common ingredient in Korean cooking, but maybe it should be, because this rice was liquid gold, and I spent most of the meal polishing off every single sweet, buttered grain.
The other unusual item was the order of honey butter chips. Apparently this snack is all the rage in Korea, and you have to wait in line like at 10 am to get yours hands on one. Luckily Oiji brings this food trend to our doorstep. The sensation of eating one is similar to snacking on warm, buttery movie popcorn, with a tinge of a sweet honey glaze. The chip manages to retain its crispiness well after the bowl arrives, so you can enjoy it at your leisure throughout the meal.
Normally with these high-end Korean restaurants, I appreciate the experience, but I never am rushing to go back. I felt very differently with Oiji. I loved how each dish captured the sweet, spicy flavor pairings that make Korean food so amazing, and any liberties taken with traditional preparation only served to intensify its addictive qualities. The nostalgia that I feel when I eat good Korean food was something that I felt here. It was like coming back home, only to a much fancier and prettier home than the one I grew up in, which is fine by me.
119 1st Avenue (between 1st and 2nd Ave)
New York, NY 10003
The Korean term hanjan means one drink. My dad and his Korean friends would throw around this phrase a lot, something along the lines of “Han jan hapshida,” or “let’s have one drink.” One drink usually led to two, and pretty soon there were empty glasses everywhere. The night would progress into a pub crawl of sorts, including a requisite stop at a karaoke club, and it would conclude at an outdoor street market or pojangmacha, where hot skewers of fishcakes, fried meat and spicy rice cakes awaited the drunken revelers.
Hanjan not surprisingly is inspired by the joomak, an old Korean tavern that offers “weary travelers good food, good drinks and a place to rest.” Although it’s pretty clear once you step inside that this is a very high-end joomak. Chic industrial fixtures and dark wood furniture are more Brooklyn than Seoul, with only the traditional ceramic pottery giving away the restaurant’s ethnic inspiration. I was a little skeptical that these chi-chi surroundings could capture the homey bar food culture that it claimed to be inspired by.
One bite of Hanjan’s “ddukbokki” put all those doubts to rest. And that says a lot, because my expectations for ddukbokki are sky high. This was basically the sacred comfort food of my childhood vacations in Korea. My parents would give me about 1,000 won to spend however I pleased, and I would literally blow it all on multiple servings of this fantastic street food. When I came back home, I would beg my mom to make it everyday and would not rest until some yummy spicy rice cakes were in my tummy.
The texture of these rice cakes were amazing. A nice and crispy crust had formed around the rice cakes, generating a sensory pleasure not unlike that of cracking the caramelized sugar on the top of a creme brulee. You definitely can’t get a charred crust like this off the streets of Seoul. The spicy sauce was also a lot more refined and restrained than the street version, which has a much more pungent, in-your-face heat about it. It was also a lot more balanced, most likely due to the flavor contributions from the pork fat and the delicious fish cakes. This is ddukbokki for the literati, not for the late night drunks, and the sober audience with its sharply attuned sensibilities can only be served something spectacular with no detail unnoticed, which Hanjan achieves.
The ddukbokki was a hard act to follow, so perhaps that’s why the fishcake and daikon soup was a bit disappointing. Whereas the ddukbokki impressed with its balanced and restrained flavors, the fishcake and daikon soup underwhelmed with its extremely one-note broth that tasted like water and pepper. The daikon and fishcakes were well prepared, but they could not make up for the one-dimensional broth.
Luckily the scallion pancake and the “freshly killed” grilled chicken wings righted the wrongs of the preceding soup dish. The scallion pancake, with its postmodern construction, was certainly impressive in its execution. Instead of a flat, circular pancake with filling planted throughout, the one at Hanjan was held together by a fragile web of tempura strands, in which scallions and squid were tangled in a precarious balance. It not only looked delicate, it tasted delicate too. The batter was light, which allowed the flavors of the ingredients to come through.
The grilled chicken wings were also another demonstration of the technical expertise of the Hanjan kitchen. The quality of the protein was undeniably high–you could just tell that Hanjan really stayed true to its mission in using locally sourced ingredients and that this chickens came from a nearby farm somewhere, perhaps that’s where the “freshly killed” descriptor comes in. The skin was thin and crispy, simulating the texture of something deep fried except not, and it was coated in just the right amount of its soy sake marinade. This puts every thick-battered, sauce drenched buffalo chicken wing to shame.
We were stuffed by the time the kimchi and beef brisket fried rice arrived. But the sound of beef fat and egg sizzling on the cast-iron plate was too much to resist. I loved how the heat burnt the rice into these tasty, crunchy bits, a comforting aftermeal snack enjoyed in Korea. While the texture and the rich flavors were tasty, I thought it was a bit on the greasy side, and I could have used more of the pickled kimchi flavor to offset the heavier seasonings. These were little nits, though, and we basically wiped the plate clean.
Serving modernized Korean food to a Korean crowd is a tough sell. Expectations are going to be sky high, since they are set to the loving memories of eating what their mother or grandmother once made them. Which is all the more impressive that Hanjan’s food attracts both the local loyalists and Western newcomers. Han jan means one drink, doo jan means two, and the countdown goes on since you won’t want to leave the inviting surroundings and the good food behind.
36 W. 26th St (between Broadway and 6th Ave)
New York, NY 10010