Obituaries

How Korean Restaurants Remade Fine Dining in New York

A few months ago, a number of serious food journalists asked out loud whether fine dining was dying, or possibly already dead. This seemed odd to me. I keep close tabs on the restaurant scene, especially in New York City, and if expensive restaurants were undergoing a mass die-off, I’d like to think I would notice. The truth, in fact, seemed to be the opposite. Fancy restaurants are opening here so quickly that there aren’t enough nights in the week for me to check them all out.

One thing I did see, though, is that the flavor of fine dining has changed a lot lately. Korean owners and chefs now run about a dozen of the city’s most prominent high-end restaurants. Their rise, which has been remarkably swift, brings to an end the unquestioned supremacy of French cuisine that lasted for decades.

Today, Atomix, the most accomplished member of the Korean new wave, regularly performs on a level that invites comparisons to Jean-Georges, Le Bernardin and Daniel. And there really isn’t a meaningful second tier in French dining in the city — at least not one that comes together with the combined finesse and power of Jua, Cote, Oiji Mi, Naro and a handful of other exceptional Korean restaurants.

Some of these I like more than others. There are one or two I haven’t reviewed in part because their tasting menus struck me as longer or more expensive than they needed to be (or both). But the best of them are among the most exciting places to eat in the city.

No American city can beat Los Angeles for traditional Korean food. But New York almost certainly has a more varied and exciting group of restaurants where the cuisine is regularly turned upside down and inside out. Outside South Korea, Manhattan is the best place to experience alternate visions of Korean cuisine, to taste classic flavors run through the dual prisms of technique and imagination.

Korean cuisine stepped out on a global stage just as South Korean music, movies and art were gaining attention. Jungsik opened in 2011, the year before “Gangnam Style” came out.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times
Modern Korean chefs often mix Western ideas with traditional flavors. The langoustine at Jungsik is garnished with caviar and surrounded by an emulsion of dongchimi, a radish kimchi in brine.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

The eldest of the new guard, Jungsik, is 12 years old. Most of those that followed have come along just in the last five years, with a new contender seeming to arrive every six months or so. The next in line is Nōksu, a 12-seat seafood counter behind a locked door inside the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station.

The reign of French haute cuisine in New York started in 1941, when Le Pavillon was transferred to Midtown from the World’s Fair in Queens, and lasted so long that the classic Le and La restaurants, with their Limoges china, silver domes and white linens, are still what most people picture when they hear the words “fine dining.”

Of course, there aren’t many places like that left. The term still suggests hyperattentive service, detail-oriented cooking and carefully controlled environments. The most useful way to think of it, though, is as a price bracket. With the exception of the rowdier steakhouses, almost any place where each person pays more than $100 or $125 for the meal alone, without drinks, is probably offering fine dining.

Vigorous, original and tuned in to contemporary tastes, the restaurants of the Korean vanguard are strewn around Manhattan from Midtown to TriBeCa, but not one is on the K-town strip of West 32nd Street. (Joomak Banjum and Atomix are a short walk away.) They cast their nets well beyond the Korean communities that are the primary audience for the restaurants of Fort Lee, N.J., and Northern Boulevard in Queens.

The chef Junghyun Park, formerly of Jungsik, has opened two fine-dining restaurants with his wife, Ellia. The newest is Naro, in Rockefeller Center.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

None of these restaurants are strictly traditional in atmosphere or service, either. They don’t, for instance, ask diners to leave their shoes at the door the way Hangawi has done for years.

The intense and varied Korean restaurants that came before them, though, set the stage for their success. So did the hallyu — the “Korean wave” of movies, music and art that broke into global consciousness.

“Arts, music and film can make a cuisine wanted,” said Jenny Kwak, the chef and an owner of Haenyeo, a casual Korean restaurant in Brooklyn where the main-course prices top out at $42. “They demystify it.”

Ms. Kwak, who opened Dok Suni in the East Village, in the 1990s, told me that she can pinpoint the event that turned large numbers of Americans on to South Korean culture: “Gangnam Style.”

“The cooks I worked with were like, ‘Oh, this is a cool song,’” she said. “I felt a cultural shift.”

Jungsik, the pioneer, opened in 2011, the year before Psy changed the world by dancing on an invisible horse.

Since then, one of Jungsik’s former chefs, Junghyun Park, has opened two formal tasting-menu restaurants: Atomix, which strives for a modern vision of Korean cuisine, and Naro, which explores the past in dishes that date back centuries.

Hoyoung Kim, another former Jungsik chef, went on to open two tasting-menu restaurants, starting with Jua.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times
The high heat and penetrating smoke of the fire weave through the menu at Jua.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times

Another Jungsik alumnus, Hoyoung Kim, went on to open Jua, where the tasting menus reinterpret Korean cuisine with the help of a wood-burning grill. Mr. Kim’s second restaurant, Moono, is more casual, if your definition of casual includes a $58 stone pot of rice with mushrooms, foie gras and black truffles served inside a soaring two-story room in a Romanesque Revival former clubhouse.

The thinking among young Korean American chefs these days seems to be, why have one fine-dining restaurant when you could have two? Sungchul Shim began serving nine-course, skewer-themed tastings at Kochi in 2019. Just two years later he followed this with a second place, Mari. It offered menus of 11 courses, most of them served over rice inside folded seaweed to form Korean-style hand rolls.

With his partner Max Soh, the chef Brian Kim owns one of the newest and most expensive Korean restaurants in town, Bōm, where you pay almost $300 for about 12 courses that culminate in multiple slabs of Wagyu beef spiderwebbed with rich fat. Bōm arrived in January, located behind a door in the back of the dining room of Oiji Mi, which Mr. Kim and Mr. Soh had opened about eight months earlier. At Oiji Mi, a five-course dinner is $145.

Bōm, where the 12-course menus cost almost $300, is one of the newest and most expensive Korean restaurants in New York.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

The progress of these restaurants has not always been unimpeded. Moono has been closed for several weeks to fix a gas problem in the kitchen. Naro has adjusted its prices and menu formats several times since opening in the Rockefeller Center concourse last fall.

In general, though, the new guard of Korean chefs and owners seem to succeed at everything they attempt. Collectively, they give the impression that they cracked the code of fine dining just when many people in the business seem ready to give up on it.

They certainly have Michelin’s number. The most recent New York edition of the guide awarded stars to nine modern Korean restaurants. By comparison, the guide gave no stars to any Chinese restaurants, which are experiencing a renaissance in New York thanks to an infusion of Chinese capital and a growing population of Chinese-born New Yorkers with money to spend on high-end dining.

European and American dining styles shape the experience at these places at least as much as Korean customs do. Since opening Cote in 2017, Simon Kim, its owner, has been careful to define it as a Korean steakhouse, not a Korean barbecue restaurant. Yes, you can get a very good grilled short-rib galbi there, but you can also drink it with a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley, after starting your meal with a shrimp cocktail on chipped ice — straight-up Americana, except for the gochujang in the cocktail sauce.

About halfway through the night, the menu at Bōm pivots to highly marbled beef.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

More often, the flourishes come straight from France. Naro and Oiji Mi are big on tableside service, especially last-minute applications of sauce. Any number of Korean tasting menus start with an amuse-bouche or two and end with mignardises. Bōm kicks off the festivities with half-dollar-size caviar tarts; the last of 18 or so courses is a tiered tree of shiny, elegant chocolate bonbons.

There are more high-end Japanese restaurants in the city than Korean; there may be more omakase sushi counters alone. But the sway the Koreans hold over the dining scene exceeds their numbers.

Their modernity and their departures from tradition give the Korean fine-dining restaurants the sense that they are in conversation with other restaurants, both here and abroad. Many of their Japanese counterparts, meanwhile, can seem to be in conversation mainly with one another. Yoshino or its yakitori equivalent, Kono, feel like emissaries of Japanese culture. Atomix, Joomak Banjum and Oiji Mi, on the other hand, are fully New York restaurants.

A meal at Bōm may start with two tiny, precise caviar tarts.Credit…Evan Sung for The New York Times

The high end doesn’t seem to be patenting new dining trends the way, say, Roy Choi’s Kogi trucks and David Chang’s original Ssam Bar once did. (One of the peculiarities of Mr. Chang’s idiosyncratic career is that he closed Kawi — one of the most compelling modern Korean restaurants the city has seen — in 2021, just as Korean fine dining was achieving a kind of critical mass.) There are probably several reasons for this, the most obvious one being that these places are too expensive to start a populist movement.

But the mere fact that bulgogi tacos exist sets the stage for dishes like the raw-scallop naengchae with jellyfish and cucumber juice that I had at Oiji Mi last month. As Ms. Kwak put it, “Korean food was always associated with spicy or pungent flavors. A limited palate. I really love that these young chefs want to show the versatility in Korean flavors. They have this need to showcase how amazing their food is, to turn that impression around.”

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