The Best Korean Restaurants in NYC with Jennifer Yoo

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Image courtesy of Yoon Haeundae Galbi

The Best Korean Restaurants in NYC with Jennifer Yoo

New York City's Korean restaurants are on the up. But which are the best spots for Korean food in the Big Apple? In search of all the insider info, Kiki Aranita asked Korean food expert and founding partner of Gotham Grove, Jennifer Yoo, for her top picks.
09 November, 2021

Jennifer Jiyun Yoo was the subject of a 2019 article in Taste, entitled: “A Korean Ingredient Smuggler Goes Clean”. There is indeed no better way to describe Yoo, who spent years bringing an array of specialty Korean ingredients from Seoul to New York City in many suitcases, though founding partner of Gotham Grove is now her official title. Since 2017, Gotham Grove has supplied many of New York City’s best chefs – and not only Korean ones – with feathery gamtae seaweed, strawberry gochujang and winter melon vinegar, all made by small producers. A partnership with Regalis has expanded Gotham Grove’s reach much farther and the pandemic boosted retail sales through gothamgrove.com as home cooks sought the same quality ingredients as Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Years ago, Yoo gave me a taste of some of the vinegars and gochujangs she imports, and I was hooked. The perilla and sesame oils she brings in from Queens Bucket are now pantry staples I reach for several times a day and I refuse to use any other oils and vinegars on my fresh fish poke and kinilaw dishes. Yoo has stressed that she wanted me and other chefs to use these traditional ingredients in new ways that speak the language of our own cuisines (mine is rooted in Hawaii), though they may be worlds apart from their original applications, on the Korean foods with which she grew up and now frequently longs for. 

Yoo lives in Brooklyn but is frequently in Korea to see her family. About her adopted home, she says: “It’s been great to see Korean food and ingredients getting a lot more attention in NYC - also outside of NYC. There have been an increasing number of experienced chefs setting up spots in NYC introducing modern, upscale, newer types of Korean cuisine. There’s also a strong Korean-American community presence that has been here for decades. All in all, it’s exciting to see Korean food embraced.”

Here are some of Yoo’s favourite Korean spots in New York City.

Oiji

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Image courtesy of Oiji.

“It’s a modern Korean spot that I feel flies under the radar. And it’s one of my favourite spots in NYC, Korean or not. Oiji is in the East Village and the space is not large. It has an inviting and cosy vibe. It gives a fresh and modern take on Korean dishes or ingredients. The 'Oiji Bowl' is something I always order. Fresh uni and sweet shrimp on top of rice, it's a decadent way to start the meal. The fried chicken is also one of my favourites - the sauce it comes with - spicy, soy sauce, hint of acid - is perfect.”

Hana Makgeolli

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Image courtesy of Hana Makgeolli

 

Yoo has turned me into a huge fan of makgeolli - a milky, tangy Korean raw rice wine - through Brooklyn-based brewery Hana Makgeolli. She explains why Hana Makgeolli is so special: “Most mass-produced makgeolli tends to have a lot of sugar in it - which I ignorantly thought before was part of its flavour profile. Hana Makgeolli uses organic rice and traditional brewing methods. The tasting room recently opened and it’s an airy, inviting space. Dishes are all designed easy to share. It’s a perfect spot to unwind after work. But makgeolli is the star here. I honestly enjoy all varieties of them though I most recently got to taste Hwaju which has Chrysanthemums and Hydrangeas infused in it. As for the dishes (‘anju’ means small plates or side dishes in Korean) ganjang saewoo jang (soy cured shrimp crudo) takes me back home. Note that you will end up needing lots of rice with this as you will want to soak up all of the sauce. And the bossam is just so incredible - one of my favourites here in the US.”

Atomix

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Photo courtesy of Atomix

I am as obsessed with Atomix as everyone else is. It’s currently ranked 43 on the World’s 50 Best list.

Here's what Yoo says: “The crew at Atomix elevates Korean cuisine in a way it hasn’t been done before. They celebrate traditions but fuse it with the modern [touches] and bring all of us along on a little journey. I also love both the subtle and not so subtle ways they continue the conversation about Korean culture. The ceramics they use tend to be from Korean artists (with information provided on the artists) and each dish comes with a background story or origin and inspiration.”

Kimbap Lab

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Image courtesy of Kimbap Lab

Yoo’s favorite kimbap in New York City comes from Kimbap Lab. “Kimbap is one of the main comfort dishes for all Koreans - we had it for field trips, festivals and frequently make it for picnics. I love getting Kimbap Lab delivered when we take a long drive - it’s perfect for the car ride. Bulgogi gimbap or the tuna with cheese are always my go to. I’m also a huge fan of their soy pickled onions and seaweed puree dipping sauce.”

Yoo taught me to refresh kimbap with the following method: “Put egg wash over leftover kimbap and pan-fry on low-med heat in a non-stick pan. This will soften the rice after being refrigerated and the egg coating will hold it all together.”

Haenyeo

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“I was so happy when Haenyeo opened up in my neighbourhood," says Yoo. "It’s not too pricey but it’s quality modern Korean, plus with there’s relaxing and inviting vibe. It’s perfect for a weeknight choice - even as take out - or to drop in for an impromptu date night.”

And her favourite dishes? “Grilled oysters, crispy wings, dukboki fundido, and for a main I almost always get Haenyeo’s spicy bouillabaisse."

Yoon Haeundae Galbi

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Image courtesy of Yoon Haeundae Galbi

Yoon Haeundae Galbi is one of Yoo’s favourite spots in Busan and was thrilled that a branch opened in New York. “I always love starting with saeng gal bi (unseasoned short ribs) and then go into marinated. If you have enough folks in your party haemul pa jeon (Seafood pancakes) is always great to start with. Save enough room for a chigae or naeng myun (cold vermicelli noodles) at the end.”