9.23.11 Seoul Asylum
In addition to being a style icon, the First Lady is a renowned gastronaut. (This is the word I substitute for the loathed "foodie.") We know she's actively concerned about what the children of this nation are consuming, but she and the President are also really into food. I often read about them dining á deux at various hot-spots around the country, so it was delightful but hardly surprising to hear that, during their recent trip to New York City, Michelle paid a visit to a new hole-in-the-wall that's been getting lots of buzz, Danji in Hell's Kitchen. In fact, they had to close the place down for her the very day before we went, with Secret Service in the kitchen and the whole deal. After a very favorable review in last month's New York Times, this 36-seat place, billed as "modern Korean tapas," went right on my list of essential eating. It's got quite a lot in common with the Momofuku restaurants: relatively short on atmo, but long on intense and memorable Asian-inflected flavors executed with classic techniques. We'll definitely be going back to sample the rest of the menu.
G and I stopped by on our way out of the city this week, and got to the restaurant just after it opened. Lucky move, as the place filled up to more-than-capacity shortly after. It's clearly a huge hit, and there were tons of Asians there, which we gringos always see as a "good sign." I noticed that the kitchen, headed by chef Hooni Kim (formerly of Daniel), is also staffed exclusively by Asians, all young and wearing groovy head-scarves.
Despite rather cramped quarters, there are a few quirky touches like the dividing screen, above, punctuated with rows of wooden spoons, and the fact that menus are stored in little drawers in the tables in front of each diner.
Some highlights from our meal included the bulgogi "sliders" with spicy pickled cucumber and scallion salsa, so beloved by Times reviewer Sam Sifton that he procured the recipe and devoted a piece to them in last week's paper. They are Danji's shot fired across the bow of the now legendary Momofuku pork bun. And what's not to like? Tender, flavorful grilled beef on a pillowy bun dressed with all manner of greasy, spicy and vinegary things.
Not enough beef? Order the braised short rib with fingerlings and meltingly soft cipollini onions. The rich, unctuous sauce was so delicious I wanted to order some rice to pour it over except...
...we had paella coming—a kimchi-, bacon- and chorizo-studded rice dish served on a piping hot cast-iron plate that gave it the lovely crust that's key to both the Spanish and Korean versions of this classic. We also enjoyed sablefish poached with daikon and some braised pork that we wrapped with kimchi in softened cabbage leaves. The portions were small, so our order was just about right.I had my eye on the boodae jjigae, a spicy meat stew with ramen noodles, but they were out. They claimed Michelle had eaten it all.