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