"But do you think it was Korean?" That was the question the manager put to us as we put on our coats. We had already assured her that we enjoyed our dinner immensely. "Oh definitely. Definitely!" It's not a Korean BBQ house where they put a big tray of banchan down on the table. You won't get a big sticky tangle of Japchae nor the controlled volcanic eruption that is Soon Dubu Chigae. So I started thinking... is it really Korean? What was I expecting? I'd done enough reading about this place to know what not to expect. But walking in the door for my Birthday Dinner I didn't know what to expect.
We opted for the 5 course option. Neither of us took the Tasting Menu, as it was also five courses and we could mix/match from those courses anyway. There were 6 amuses, all presented more or less at the same time. There was some sort of fruity, foamy thing which I didn't care for... it reminded me of an aerated strawberry soup. It was fine, but not to my taste. Next was a soy paste thing, which had a little hit of denjang--better than the first. Following that one was my favorite actually, a little lump of mashed turnip (?) with a dot of finely chopped kimchee on top. The hint of kimchee funk was just enough for me to say That's Korean. Then a beautifully fried nugget of chicken about an inch in diameter was served with a spicy mayonnaise. Then a bulgogi slider that looked better than it tasted. It was beautiful. It made me laugh a little, since it was about as big around as a nickel, yet looked like a perfectly formed burger, tiny buns and all. Unfortunately mine was sort of dry; props for presentation though. Then there was a smoked potato soup with prosciutto. How come no one has ever smoked potatoes before? How come everyone doesn't do it? It's a brilliant idea! The soup was on the upper limit of what I consider acceptable saltiness. One more grain might have put it over the top. But again, it was only about a tablespoon of soup.
For our first courses I ordered the Bibim and J got the "Mushroom." They described the Bibim as a deconstructed caprese salad with basil sorbet. I was told that Bibim means "mixed" so I should do so thoroughly. It was okay. But maybe like the fruity foamy amuse, it wasn't to my taste. It verged on sweet, and as others have noted: cold. Like, ice-cream cold. The Mushroom dish was really good. The kind of good where you fall out of your chair and roll around on the floor. We didn't, of course. It was sauteed mushrooms with a crispy rice cake served in dashi broth with a poached egg. Why on earth would anyone order the cold, deconstructed caprese salad when this was available? Friends, learn from my mistake and definitely order the Mushroom. Korean? Maybe. I usually associate dashi with Japanese, but very runny eggs enriching a dish feels Korean to me.
The second course is the Noodle/Rice course on the menu. J ordered the Sea Urchin dish. I orderd, appropriately enough Miyeok, or Birthday Meal. Typically miyeok is a seaweed and beef soup. Here they made the soup, pureed it and then used it to make a risotto dish. I don't remember whether or not it was rice or some other grain. I was too busy enjoying how amazing it was to worry about such trifles. The Sea Urchin, to both or our great surprise, wasn't as successful. By comparison it was a little bland. It consisted of seaweed rice, crispy quinoa (??) and a good sized piece of coral colored sea urchin on top. We think maybe it wasn't mixed quite enough, because toward the bottom we discovered the rice was darker with some sort of soya based sauce. The miyeok was clearly the better of the two dishes though, either way. It had a very deep, earthy flavor. Is it Korean? Sure, probably. Crispy quinoa clearly isn't. But does it matter?
Course number three was fish. I had a 2"x2"x1" hunk of black cod with a slightly sweetened soy and spicy red pepper reduction. This dish nearly flipped the table over with it's Assertion of Koreanness. Black cod is sort of a gimmee. You could cook it inside a dirty sneaker and it would still somehow taste good. Served with the soy and hot red pepper sauce, it really shone. J ordered the crispy red snapper with spicy cilantro sauce. It was very good, but it suffered from a curious problem. Aside from not being traditionally Korean (do we really care about this anymore? I sure don't), the sauce was too thin. It was beautifully tasty, but it wouldn't adhere to the crispy exterior of the fish. Eating it with a spoon solved this problem. Now that makes it Korean, I guess... eating it with a spoon.
For the meat course we both ordered the same thing. Blasphemy! I know! But the other two options didn't really grab our interest (classic galbi and seoul duck), and I'd heard so many good things about this dish. It was a block of pork belly roughly 1x1x3 inches, sliced with surgical precision into quarter-inch sections. It was served on a pool of some sort of foamed sauce that had the deep funk of denjang (fermented bean paste, kind of like miso, but more "sneaker-y" if that's a word). Served along side of it were two members of the missing banchan! The waiter described them as white pickle and cucumber pickle; but it was a daikon kimchee and spicy cucumber kimchee. But this is where my own particular quirks come in to play... I didn't like the pork belly itself all that much. Sure, the exterior was crisp. It was a micro-thin layer of crispness which obviously takes some serious technique to achieve. In my perfect world though, pork belly is more well-rendered. I don't like chewy, or god forbid, floppy bacon. I wonder whether they cooked it sous-vide, then plunged it into a deep fryer for 10 seconds. In any event, people rave about this dish, and rightly so. It's just not how I like pork belly. Is it Korean?
After clearing our plates, the waiter dropped off a palate cleanser of some sort of sour-fruit ice over some sort of slightly creamy sweet custard. For the life of me, I can't remember what it was. It was good. For my dessert I had the Apple Rice Wine Baba, and J ordered the Pumpkin Panna Cotta. The latter was very nice, maybe a little more dense than many panna cottas. It was sweet and pumpkin-y. Mine was good, but it also had a sour-fruit ice (apple? rice wine?), and a few small pieces of cake, and some sort of molecularly contrived crumbled powder. Korean? I suppose one could argue that anything with squash or pumpkins could be Korean, but let's face it. Dessert in most Korean restaurants usually consists of a cleverly sliced orange and a bunch of toothpicks.
We drank judiciously throughout all of this. We managed all that food with only one bottle of wine between us... a very nice French Sancerre the sommelier recommended for us.
So in the end, the question of whether or not it's Korean is kind of moot. And don't even start with the Authenticity Question. Clearly they're using elements we'd associate unmistakably with Korean cuisine in their food. But what does it mean to say it's Korean? Should we make the reductive assertion that it's only Korean if there's kimchee and denjang? Do runny eggs make it Korean? Is it only Italian food if there's Marinara? Who cares, really? The chef has clearly spent time in some serious high-end kitchens and he's producing some fantastic food. Part of his palette is borrowed from traditional Korean food, but he's obviously doing something different. I guess any time food is refined for haute cuisine, some of the rough edges are smoothed over. Jungsik doesn't deliver the relentless blast of raw garlic you'll get at a traditional place. You won't experience "face sweating" the way you might after eating several pieces of baechu kimchee. Some people call those rough edges Authentic, and you won't find them here.
I'd definitely recommend this place to anyone. Just don't go in there expecting a traditional Korean meal.
2 Harrison St, New York, NY 10013