Last year, in the run up to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, top Korean chefs were invited to participate in citywide collaborations with some of New York’s finest cooks like Dan Barber of Blue Hill in Greenwich Village and Carlo Mirarchi of Brooklyn’s Blanca.
Coupled with the government-backed Hallyu or pop-culture wave that has been vibrating around the global stadium since the 90s, Korea’s food, pop music and beauty brands have received tons of Western airplay.
Today, bibimbap, gimbab and kimchi form part of the mainstream culinary lexicon. Korean-American writer Euny Hong, author of The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture calls these popular Korean exports a glimpse at “the future”.
K-Town in New York may be compact compared to L.A, but it has a special kind of charm. Deuki Hong, chef at the popular Kang Ho Dong Baekjong restaurant and co-author of Koreatown – a Cookbook says, “The energy on this one city block is incomparable to any place in the country.”
Esther Choi, chef and owner of Mokbar at the ever-popular Chelsea Market (she has one in Brooklyn too) is known as the “Kimchi Queen”. She supplies six in-season versions at her eatery and learned at the hand of her immigrant grandmother. The complexity of Korean food hinges, in part, on the variety of fermented sauces, marinades and pickles that make up its profile. Kimchi - fermented spiced vegetables with gut-healthy probiotics, served as part of an array of banchan (side dishes) when you order galbi (short rib) or barbeque - is one of the popular Korean foods that Westerners recognise.
Alex Paik, a Korea-tourism marketing expert based in Seoul says, “There are over 300 varieties of kimchi, yet most [Westerners] only ever think about eating the top three or four.” The master Korean sauces used in hansik (traditional food) are also fermented: ganjang (Korean soya sauce), doenjang (soya bean paste) and gochujang (red bean chilli paste). Hong adds, “It’s a cusiine that requires time and employs the art of fermentation.” Kimchi has been fused with Mexican and a range of cuisines that it complements effortlessly.
Like it has been with kimchi, much attention has been given to temple food – the healing, balanced vegetarian and vegan food prepared by Buddhist monks and nuns, like Jeong Kwan featured in season three of Chef’s Table in an ethereal episode set in her temple and surrounds that is sure to evoke your wanderlust. (Closer to home, try Hangawi in K-Town for well-balanced vegetarian food).
Chelsea Market, 75 9th Av.
Tel. 001 646 775 1169, Website
12 E 32nd St.
Tel. 001 212 213 0077, Website
BETTER THAN YOUR REGULAR BBQ
There’s no BBQ like Korean BBQ, insists Hong, who grew up with weekly barbeque parties with his father, a fellow meat-obsessive. At Kang Ho Dong Baekjong, K-pop blares and jugs of soju cocktails are passed around. You gather with a group of friends as a server cooks your chosen cuts over a central grill suspended on your table, bringing out a hefty tray of banchan.
Try Don’s Bogam BBQ & Wine Bar for a more upmarket, mellow vibe.
Kang Ho Dong Baekjong
1 E 32nd St.
Tel. 001 212 966 9839, Website
Dons Bogam BBQ & Wine Bar
17 E 32nd St.
Tel. 001 212 683 2200, Website
Korean fried chicken and cauliflower, in some cases, takes KFC to spicier heights. Turntable Chicken Jazz makes two great versions and Hanjan in the Flatiron district, chef Hooni Kim’s more casual, tavern-style restaurant that gives Korean classics a fresh spin, offers the chicken in nugget form.
At shoe-boxed sized Danji in Hell’s Kitchen, Kim’s first restaurant, he also serves chicken wings (order two portions), as well as Korean staples but in the form of sliders, fried rice with bacon spam and mini bibimbap bowls. It’s modern Korean tapas and not cheap by any means.
Turntable Chicken Jazz
314 5th Av.
Tel. 001 212 714 9700, Website
346 W 52nd St.
Tel. 001 212 586 2880, Website
36 W 26th St.
Tel. 001 212 206 7226, Website
Jungsik, the second outpost for chef Jungsik Kim (he runs one in Seoul too), has two Michelin stars and leads the pack as far as New York City elevated Korean cuisine goes. The sea urchin is served with a range of accompaniments that alter the taste with each nibble. Kim is known for his contemporary approach and elegant style - the tasting menu is the way to go here.
Atoboy, run by former Jungsik chef Junghyun Park combines a casual family-style approach with fine dining to serve three dishes of your choice from a large range which include eggplant with crab, sunchoke with truffle and squid with pork and salsa verde. Alex Paik predicts that Korean food has only started to make an impact in the world – and the world really is its sea urchin.
Tel. 001 212 219 0900, Website
43 E 28th St.
Tel. 001 646 476 7217, Website