NEW YORK (Yonhap News) ― In Midtown Manhattan, the root of Korean food’s popularity stems from the sizzle that fills the air at Koreatown’s many restaurants, whether it be from the crackling heat of stone pot bibimbap or the hot sputter of galbi beef ribs on the grill.
Many New Yorkers have been introduced to Korean food here in K-town, yet many would equate it with do-it-yourself tabletop grilling of meat and plentiful, refillable side dishes that can sometimes cover the whole table.
For John Sebegny who moved recently from France, his first Korean dinner at a popular restaurant on 32nd Street was “awesome” with “so much delicious meat and so many little side dishes.”
But his dinner did have one negative outcome: grill smoke. “I had to take all my clothes I wore to that dinner to laundry,” he said.
Richard Kim, a Korean-American working in global finance, had a similar complaint.
“Of course I like galbi dinner with friends, but I will give a warning about the grill smoke that follows you home if I’m inviting friends who haven’t tried Korean food. I wouldn’t take a chance of taking my clients to a Korean dinner,” he said.
For those who want to enjoy Korean barbecue without the common ventilation concerns, some find Don’s Bogam on the eastern end of the Koreatown stretch as their go-to place. Its main dining room offers traditional floor seating, but made more comfortable with recessed legroom. Corner tables around the main dining room accommodate more intimate dinner conversations.
The wait staff also tend to grilling the meat at each table so that guests can enjoy dinner without worrying about overcooking or burning their food. With the usual delectable Korean dishes and meat selections of galbi, thin slices of marinated bulgogi beef or samgyeopsal pork belly, touches of elevated service make this place a long-time favorite of many in the know.
“This place has great food, and I like it for not having to worry about the grill smoke. Also, I find the people and environment here more approachable than other K-town restaurants,” said Yuko Kuru as she enjoyed her dinner of galbi with co-workers from a nearby bank.
On the opposite end of Korean barbecue is vegetarian fare, most recently highlighted in the cover story on Korean temple cuisine in Food and Wine magazine and colorfully explored in the story on bibimbap in Saveur magazine.
However, well before vegetables garnered any major attention in the U.S. culinary world, Choi Yoon-seok opened the Korean vegetarian restaurant Hangawi in 1994, followed by the vegan cafe Franchia in 2003 in Manhattan.
Although there are a few Japanese and Chinese teahouses scattered around Manhattan, Franchia remains the only Korean cafe with a selection of premium Asian teas, including its signature wild green tea, hand-picked from Mount Jiri in Korea.
Franchia’s airy space juxtaposes New York modern and Korean Zen with its three-tiered, minimalist dining room that looks up to the Korean temple mural on the soaring high ceiling. It provides a contrasting retreat from bustling city life.
But the restaurants weren’t immediate hits.
“Franchia may have been too ahead of its time. Like Hangawi, I struggled with Franchia for the first few years,” Choi said. What started as a teahouse offering ‘dado’ (Korean tea ceremony) demonstrations and lessons in the traditional tearoom setting has evolved to include light, vegetarian-friendly dishes. Now it’s a locale for many New Yorkers, not just vegetarians.
“As soon as I walk in here, I feel relaxed. I’m not vegetarian, but I like their pancakes and bibimbap,” said Vicky Jones, who was chatting with her friend over a cup of snow dew tea and a plate of vegetable dumplings on a Sunday afternoon.
Recently, many local foodies have begun to consider chef-owner Hooni Kim’s modern Korean restaurant Danji, named after the Korean word for clay pot, one of the hottest new restaurants in Manhattan since its opening last December.
The bar front and a mix of communal and one-party tables fill up this intimate, 36-seat Korean bistro. What chef Kim lost in tabletop grills and free side dishes, he makes up for with select, seasonal Korean flavors in tapas form, which is more familiar to New Yorkers. The space is undeniably New York, in a tight room with a whitewashed brick wall, planted with clever Korean elements such as metal spoons used as a space divider.
“Danji is what I am about,” said chef Kim, a Korean-American who grew up in New York. When he was young, Kim visited Korea every year and has vivid memories of Korean flavors. He then built his classical culinary training and learned New Yorkers’ approach to the fine dining experience at the hot spots Daniel and Masa.
On a recent night, Jeff Baum was enjoying dinner with his date at Danji after reading great reviews of this new spot in Hell’s Kitchen.
“The bulgogi sliders are to die for. I’m getting another order of this,” he said, sharing his excitement with people at the next table as he took another sip of smooth “50-soju,” a popular mixed drink of herbal liquor and soju from Korea.
Yet, as more restaurateurs attempt diverse concepts for Korean eateries, those that veer farther off from the “typical” Koreatown restaurants often draw criticism, most commonly for the lack of complementary banchan side dishes, compromised flavors with milder, sweeter undertones and higher price points.
The concentration of similar concept restaurants in Koreatown has become a double-edged sword, providing a foundation for Korean food’s popularity as well as a standard reference for criticism.
“No other cuisine carries this burden of providing so many ‘complementary’ dishes that still require labor and food costs and cut away the already tight margin of operating a restaurant in Manhattan,” said a Korean restaurant staff member who wished to remain anonymous.
“My mother-in-law makes kimchi every week for my restaurant,” said chef Kim. “It would break her heart to see it go to waste because we serve it to someone who doesn’t care for it. I’d rather offer a selection of my mother-in-law’s kimchi to people who appreciate it for $5.”
David Oh, a long-time manager of Woo Lae Oak, which just closed its doors after 12 years in Soho, commented on the difficulty of balancing flavors between “Koreans who have the bolder, stronger seasoning planted in their minds and for non-Koreans who are just getting introduced to Korean flavors.”
All the arguments for and against banchan, price and flavor may subside as restaurateurs continue to improve their eateries and try a greater variety of concepts, eventually diversifying the profile of Korean restaurants in Manhattan.
Currently, even with recent updates in Korean offerings, from food trucks and modern food courts to cozy bistros, the changes are not so obvious to many Korean food lovers in Manhattan.
“I love Korean food but I am ready for something different (in Korean food),” said Bart Sayer, a consultant who grew up in New York and frequents K-town for casual dinners with friends and family.
Steve Diehl, a New Yorker in business development who also counts Korean food as one of his favorite cuisines, appeared stumped as he tried to envision a different kind of Korean restaurant. “Koreans love food, and they are quick to adapt to new trends. Somehow, I don’t see that translated much into Korean restaurants in Manhattan.”