Dear Danji & Chef Hooni Kim…
I recently had the great pleasure of dining at your establishment, where I have wanted to dine for easily at least 3 years now. I missed more than a few opportunities to do so along the way – entirely because of mishaps and miscommunications – but you were always on my radar.
As luck would have it, a friend recently surprised me by picking me up after French class at fiaf and driving crosstown for us to eat a late dinner – or as I put it, “when guys let me make them eat things they have never eaten and consider weird” – except, to my great sadness, this meant that I was not prepared to report on the meal. I did not have my dSLR with me, and in such a dark restaurant, the pics I took with my amazing Samsung Galaxy S5 still are just too dark to bother tinkering with to post here.
I am sorry to both you and your staff, and also to my readers, but this will be the first time in a very, very long time, that I will post about food without photos.
Because it was that good and that worth commemorating.
We walked in a little past 9 on a Monday night, and the hostesses were more than accommodating – no attitude when the answer to “do you have a reservation?” was no. Just “sure, I think it’s going to be about a 15 minute wait, let me check on that” with all smiles. Waiting at the bar was a pleasure; your mixologist was exceedingly helpful as my non-foodventurous dining companion was not familiar with the spirits you offered. She poured tastes of each for him as he sampled his way to figuring out which most suited his palate, while I happily ordered from the cocktail menu a drink called Tokyo Drift. Refreshing, light, and while I’d have preferred a gin drink, the vodka worked. It was almost like an Asian mojito with yuzu and shiso, but not quite as overpoweringly minty (I do not like mojitos). Delicious.
A short bit later, one of your hostesses made the mistake of seating a couple who arrived after us, before us (though they did not have a reservation either). My hangry-eyes came out, but the hostess quickly fixed this before I even glanced her way. Once seated, I loved the hidden drawers under the table holding our menus; genius! I barely needed to look at the menu as I ordered to my heart’s content.
First up, pork belly sliders. These were good – well balanced, the slightest of kicks, but fat balanced with spiciness and the nice tangle of scallions atop the pork belly: good. A very good start.
Next… yuk hwe, or Korean steak tartare. Something of a sought after item for me – I really enjoy a good yuk hwe – this one was interestingly served in a long column on the rectangular plate, quail egg yolk quivering in one corner atop a bit of seasonings, a small nest of dressed cabbage in the opposite corner, and a crisscross of Asian pear running the length of the column. Cut into strips, the raw beef had been tossed with sesame oil and toasted pine nuts, then I carefully mixed everything together at the table. Warning: this was NOT a small dish. Normally, this is a very good thing – except in the case of me having to eat the entire thing by myself as my companion took one bite (yay for my insistence) but then declined it as not for him. Hmph. I struggled to finish it, and by the end, the sesame oil was coating my mouth and I was feeling unpleasantly oily. I think I would have liked a bit more Asian pear to cut through the richness of both the sesame oil and the very high quality raw beef… maybe a little more cabbage. Just something to balance it a bit more.
After that came the two dishes my companion was most excited to have: both Korean fried chicken dishes! Spicy Korean fire chicken wings and garlic honey wings with sesame seeds. The spicy one came first, and we both eagerly dug in, though I immediately started sweating and crying more than a little bit. He amusedly watched as I chugged water glass after water glass (which the servers refilled each time), while he just ate them like they were not spicy at all. I think I heard him moaning with pleasure at how delicious they were. I left him the lion’s share and then…
the garlic honey wings came out! Both wing styles were crisp, sticky with their respective sauces, but the garlic honey was just perfectly sweet and tailored to make my mouth happy. And happy I was! While my dining companion requested and received some of their super spicy house made sauce, almost tearing up at how spicy THAT was (he added it all over his garlic honey wings; we really should have just eaten each dish, him the spicy, me the sweet), I ate mine as is. Because they were GOOD.
I think these would make good football food… (as I sit here screaming at the TV behind me)
Spicy cod roe pasta was next, which was a purely selfish indulgence as I had a sneaking suspicion that were my dining companion to know exactly what I’d ordered, he’d not eat it. Sure enough, the appearance of another raw quail yolk atop the pasta mound gave him the heebs, and he watched me carefully as I tossed it all around together. He gamely took a big pile of pasta onto his plate, then doused it in chili sauce, then claimed he was full. Well, okay then. Personally, this dish – which I’ve had as a Japanese dish many times – fell a little flat for me. The excess shredded perilla leaves on top didn’t mix well throughout the dish, and it became a grassy mouthful when found. The spiciness was muted (or was my mouth numb from the spicy wings?), and the cod roe wasn’t overtly assertive – which would have been good for my friend, but as I love that salty, fishy taste, I would have liked it a little more front and center. I was getting full anyway…
until I realized that one more dish had yet to arrive.
The bossam. Really, a modern take on it – braised pork belly, sliced thick, laid atop a pool of sauce, little clumps of scallions, next to dehydrated daikon kimchi and a stack of cooked Napa cabbage. We were told to use the cabbage to wrap a piece of pork belly and garnish as we pleased.
At first, my dining companion resisted. I made one up for him, taking a long strip of Napa cabbage, fully pliable from having been cooked, and laid a piece of pork belly, a little daikon kimchi and scallions on top before rolling it all up. He poked at it a bit, so I made my own, put it in my mouth in one shot, and…
I am pretty sure the moan that escaped my mouth rivaled that of Meg Ryan’s in When Harry Met Sally.
Napa cabbage: slightly sweet, completely soft
Pork belly: meaty chew, extremely savory, very fatty
Scallions: a bit pungent, bringing balance to the rich flavors
Daikon kimchi: crunchy, spicy, teensiest bit sour
Sauce on the bottom: just a hint of a kick
Think about this; as the roll-up enters your mouth and you bite into it, you taste the sweetness of the completely soft Napa cabbage as it releases its juices upon meeting your teeth. Next, your teeth begin their journey through the fatty, tender pork belly that still has a bit of chew to it; your tongue relishes in the squishy fat that bursts forth. At the same time, on the other side, your other set of teeth (top or bottom, depending on the roll-up’s orientation) meets a bit of scallion and the crunchy daikon, which is the near opposite of the soft pork belly in terms of texture. The juxtaposition is brilliant and delicious. Last but not least, there is the green scallion, bringing the final bit of balance to the bite.
Yes, please. I don’t know how many more times I can or should say… YES. PLEASE.
We were both too full at this point to continue… no shame: these little bad boys were still good cold, straight from the fridge. Something about that soft cabbage around the pork belly just WORKED SO WELL.
Chef Hooni, I am so sorry that I missed all these years of nomming on your delicious pork belly.
I won’t make that mistake again…
(Funny enough, I’ve been to your second restaurant before this one…)
I may just be in love. I will be back sooner than later.