A Korean Tasting Menu With Verve and Polish, at Jua
Hoyoung Kim’s tasting menu at Jua often begins with an inky dark column about three inches tall. The bottom third is wrapped in puffed seaweed that, in its specific degree of crispness, recalls a Pringles chip. Rising above that is caviar piled in a tall black beehive, like Marge Simpson’s hair in the Halloween episode where she turned up as a witch.
The obvious move is to pick the thing up by the base and eat it like an ice cream cone, but the server has said something about trying to get all the flavors in one bite. Inside, from the bottom up, is a foundation of truffled rice, crisp shards of pickled mountain yam and kimchi, and finally a spoonful of chopped raw short rib, slippery with sesame oil, just beneath the roe.
What Mr. Kim has done is to take kimbap, that sturdy and filling staple of Korean lunchboxes, picnic baskets and takeout containers, and dress it up for a black-tie event. He has worked up several other kimbap variations, too, including one filled with sea urchin. One version or another almost always bats first in Jua’s menu, and with good reason: Once you’ve eaten it, you’re likely to trust anything that comes out of the kitchen.
Kimbap is reimagined as a dark tower crowned with caviar.Credit…Rachel Vanni for The New York Times
When Jua opened on East 22nd Street two years ago this month, it joined a small and growing cluster of restaurants giving Manhattan a polished, modern and worldly view of Korean cuisine. Los Angeles still offers as deep and comprehensive a survey of traditional Korean dishes as you’ll find outside South Korea. But for modern, creative Korean restaurants, no place outside 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 as good a contemporary Korean American restaurant as any city could hope for.
Many of these places, including Atomix, Kochi, Joomak Banjum and Jua, follow a fixed-price, multicourse format. It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, somebody I invite for dinner is going to turn me down by saying a sentence that would have been unthinkable a decade ago: “No thanks, I had a Korean tasting menu last night.”
This genre of restaurant was essentially invented by the South Korean chef Jung Sik Yim, who opened the first Jungsik in Seoul in 2009 followed by one in TriBeCa in 2011. Although his country has its own traditions of fine dining, Mr. Yim’s project was to apply the form of modern Western European and American fine dining to Korean food. Traditional serving vessels, for instance, were thrown over in favor of broad porcelain plates and bowls upon which sauces and ingredients were arrayed as meticulously as brushstrokes on a Kandinsky.
While arty, straight-faced Jungsik was sliding onto global best-restaurant lists alongside names like D.O.M. (in São Paulo) and Disfrutar (in Barcelona), other Korean restaurants in Manhattan were experimenting with a looser, less starchy style. Danji and Hanjan served galbi skewers, bulgogi sliders and other casual but not flippant Korean food inspired by what used to be called gastro-pub cooking. Gastro pubs also inspired the Hand Hospitality group, starting with its first restaurant, Take 31.
As Hand Hospitality grew, it began to specialize in cool, concrete-filled restaurants whose menus had fresh ideas for updating Korean cuisine. The line between a fresh idea and a gimmick can be a fine one, of course. LittleMad, which the group has a stake in, will add truffles, caviar or sea urchin to almost every dish for about $10, in case your philosophy is that the untruffled life is not worth living. At Kochi, which is not affiliated with Hand Hospitality, every course is impaled on a skewer, whether it needs it or not.
Some remarkable restaurants have resulted from combining the atmospheric strengths of Hand Hospitality’s dining rooms with the technical ones of Jungsik’s kitchen. The group collaborated with Junghyun Park, who had cooked at both the New York and Seoul locations of Jungsik, to build Atoboy and Atomix. And in 2020, Hand Hospitality teamed up with Mr. Kim, who had spent eight years at Jungsik’s TriBeCa location, to open Jua.
Jua serves tasting-menu food in a space that doesn’t look like a tasting-menu restaurant (although the price, $130 for a seven-course dinner before tax and tip, is definitely tasting-menu money). It is set apart from the rest of the pack by 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 a gimmick, too, but as gimmicks go it’s at least as good as poking a stick through every course.
Exposed brick walls, rough ceiling beams and polished concrete floors give Jua’s dining room the look of a partly reclaimed industrial loft. The first time I ate there, I had the feeling I’d escaped from the city for a few hours, but I couldn’t figure out why. The next time, I was seated in the back, closer to the kitchen, and I understood: The smoke from a wood-burning grill makes this restaurant around the corner from the Flatiron Building smell like a cabin in the Catskills.
Recently, the caviar kimbap has been followed by a bowl of jook fortified with king trumpet mushrooms and smoked eel. It’s warm and creamy, as a good jook should be, but the eel gives it an unanticipated depth and smokiness.
Then comes a beautiful sunset-colored strip of Arctic char under blistered skin that is blackened with pinpoint precision. How could fish cooked over a fire stay so rich and moist? Before its appointment with the grill, it had been poached in smoked olive oil. The char was served over asparagus (in late fall, though?) with a fish-bone broth that brought another puff of smoke to the proceedings.
Grilled duck breast arrives with garnishes on their own plate, including a dead-ripe wedge of persimmon and a hot soy-glazed eggplant fritter that is like a Timbit from a rogue Tim Hortons. These are marvelous, and so is the cured cucumber, with a black filigree of char as delicately applied as the lace around the neck of one of Rembrandt’s burghers.
The rest of the garnishes are a little hazy, in part because the servers at Jua 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 at many tasting-menu restaurants; servers don’t learn to bring each course to life with words the way they do when they have to guide customers through an à la carte menu. It’s one of the oddities of the tasting-menu format: The more elaborate the plate, the less you hear about it.
Dessert requires no instructions, though. The green-tea shaved ice served over the summer gave way this fall to a sneakily appealing dessert soup of kabocha squash poured over brown-butter ice cream. The final course, though, is invariably hotteok. On the streets of South Korea, hotteok are structurally similar to pupusas, and can take any one of hundreds of fillings. The hotteok at Jua, though, are puffy and golden and crunchy with candied nuts. They are like beignets trying to pass for sticky buns, and almost getting away with it.
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