Hoyoung Kim’s tasting menu at Jua often begins with a column of dark ink about three inches in height. The lower third is wrapped in a puffed seaweed which, by its specific degree of crunch, is reminiscent of a Pringles chip. Rising above, caviar stacked in a large black beehive, like Marge Simpson’s hair in the Halloween episode where she was revealed to be a witch.
The obvious move is to scoop the thing up by the base and eat it like an ice cream cone, but the waiter said something about trying to get all the flavors in one bite. Inside, from bottom to top, is a base of truffled rice, crispy pieces of mountain yam and marinated kimchi, and finally a spoonful of chopped raw short ribs, slippery with sesame oil, right under the eggs.
What Mr. Kim did was take some kimbap, that solid and filling staple of Korean lunch boxes, picnic baskets and takeout containers, and dress him up for an event. black tie. He also made several other variations of kimbap, including one filled with sea urchins. One version or another almost always beats first on Jua’s menu, and for good reason: once you’ve eaten it, you’re likely to trust anything that comes out of the kitchen.
When Jua opened on East 22nd Street two years ago this month, it joined a small and growing group of restaurants giving Manhattan a refined, modern and worldly take on Korean cuisine. Los Angeles always offers as extensive and comprehensive a study of traditional Korean dishes as you will find outside of South Korea. But for modern and creative Korean restaurants, no place outside of South Korea rivals New York. The local scene is so strong that it has already bounced back from the recent demise of Hanjan and Kawi, each a contemporary Korean American restaurant as good as any city could hope for.
Many of these places, including Atomix, Cochin, Joomak Banjum and Jua, follow a fixed-price multi-course format. It hasn’t happened yet, but one day someone I invite to dinner is going to refuse me by saying a phrase that would have been unthinkable a decade ago: “No thanks, I had a Korean tasting menu.” yesterday evening.
This kind of restaurant was basically invented by South Korean chef Jung Sik Yim, who opened the first Jungsik in Seoul in 2009 followed by one at TriBeCa in 2011. Although his country has its own traditions in gastronomy, Mr. Yim’s plan was to apply the modern Western European and American form of gastronomy to Korean cuisine. Traditional serving dishes, for example, were abandoned in favor of large porcelain plates and bowls on which sauces and ingredients were laid out as meticulously as brushstrokes on a Kandinsky.
As the arty, straight-faced Jungsik slid down the world’s best restaurant lists alongside names like DOM (in São Paulo) and Disfrutar (in Barcelona), other Korean restaurants in Manhattan were experimenting with a looser, less starchy style. Danji and Hanjan served up galbi skewers, bulgogi sliders, and other casual but not casual Korean dishes inspired by what used to be known as gourmet pub food. Gastronomic pubs have also inspired the Main Hospitality group, from its first restaurant, Take 31.
As Hand Hospitality grew, it began to specialize in cool, concrete-filled restaurants whose menus offered new ideas to update Korean cuisine. The line between a new idea and a gadget can of course be thin. LittleMad, in which the group has a stake, will add truffles, caviar or sea urchins to almost any dish for around $ 10, in case your philosophy is that life without a truffle is not worth living. At Kochi, which is not affiliated with Hand Hospitality, every dish is impaled on a skewer whether it’s needed or not.
Some notable restaurants are the result of combining the atmospheric forces of Hand Hospitality’s dining rooms with those of Jungsik’s cuisine. The group worked with Junghyun Park, who had cooked at both Jungsik’s sites in New York City and Seoul, to build Atoboy and Atomix. And in 2020, Hand Hospitality partnered with Mr. Kim, who had spent eight years at the Jungsik site in TriBeCa, to open Jua.
Jua serves tasting menu dishes in a space unlike a tasting menu restaurant (although the price, $ 130 for a seven-course dinner before taxes and tip, is definitely the tasting menu money). He stands out from the rest of the pack for the skill with which Mr. Kim incorporates the grill into his versions of Korean cuisine. You could argue that grilling food over a wood fire is also a gimmick, but as a gimmick, it’s at least as good as pushing a stick into each dish.
Exposed brick walls, beamed ceilings, and polished concrete floors give Jua’s dining room the appearance of a partly reclaimed industrial loft. The first time I ate there I felt like I had escaped the city for a few hours, but couldn’t understand why. The next time, I was sitting at the back, closer to the kitchen, and I understood: smoke from a wood-burning grill makes this restaurant around the corner of the Flatiron Building smell like a cabin in the Catskills.
Recently, the kimbap caviar was followed by a bowl of jook enriched with trumpet mushrooms and smoked eel. It’s hot and creamy, like a good jook should be, but the eel gives it an unexpected depth and smoke.
Next is a beautiful strip of sunset-colored arctic char under a blistered skin that is blackened with pinpoint precision. How can fish cooked over a wood fire stay so rich and chewy? Before his date at the grill, he had been poached in smoked olive oil. The char was served over asparagus (in late fall, though?) With a fishbone broth which brought another puff of smoke to the proceedings.
The grilled duck breast arrives with toppings on their own plate, including a wedge of ripe persimmon and a hot soy-glazed eggplant fritter that looks like a Timbit a Tim Hortons thug. These are wonderful, just like the dried cucumber, with a black char filigree as delicately applied as the lace around the neck of one of Rembrandt’s bourgeois.
The rest of the toppings are a bit hazy, in part because Jua’s waiters have a habit of rushing through their descriptions of the dishes as if they were reading the side effects on a Cialis ad. This happens in many restaurants with a tasting menu; waiters don’t learn to bring every dish to life in words like they do when they have to guide customers through an a la carte menu. This is one of the oddities of the tasting menu format: the more elaborate the plate, the less we hear about it.
The dessert does not require any instruction, however. Green tea shaved ice served over the summer gave way this fall to a deviously appealing dessert soup of kabocha squash poured over brown butter ice cream. The final course, however, is invariably hotteok. On the streets of South Korea, hotteok are structurally similar to pupusas and can take any of the hundreds of fillings. Hotteok in Jua, however, are puffy and golden and crunchy with candied nuts. They’re like donuts trying to pass themselves off as sticky buns, and almost get away with it.
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