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.

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,…



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