“New Korean” That Sacrifices Substance for Style
In a strange, “full circle” sort of way, I can trace much of my culinary awakening to a teenage exchange trip to Busan and Seoul some six years ago. I can’t say I particularly learned much about Korean food there beyond the very obvious, omnipresent kimchi and shocking servings of fish and rice and hot soup for breakfast. Nonetheless, the cuisine offered to me–most of it indecipherable to a kid who still struggled eating his vegetables–started pushing boundaries that have now altogether eroded. Since then, I’ve fostered a love for galbi, bulgogi, and bibimbap but had little opportunity to broaden my horizons beyond the more typical offerings you find in Koreatowns.
It’s with this mix of nostalgia and curiosity that I eagerly booked a reservation at Jungsik, a self-styled “New Korean” restaurant and play on the term jung sik which means “formal dinner.” Yet, while the restaurant had the look, the services, and the platings of a fine dining establishment, the food itself felt more like a Korean caricature of fine dining, an array of small, crowd-pleasing plates rather than a true embrace of its culture and flavors. That is not to say that any one dish was even particularly bad, just that the overall movement of the tasting was uninspired and a bit “safe.”
The meal started off as many great meals do, with a dizzying amount of amuse bouches brought out in quick succession made to mimic the traditional Korean array of side dishes or banchan. Out of the five bites, a smoked eel purée in puff pastry with apple gelée and a small, perfectly crispy bite of fried chicken with spicy mayo stood out as well-executed and unique. It was an exciting way to start the meal and a nice riff on a staple of Korean dining culture.
Next came the caviar course: hard to ruin but equally difficult to impress when you’re charging a supplementary fee and (understandably) letting the product do the talking. The scoop of Golden Ossetra was generous for $40, and the combination of crispy potato, chive, and crème fraîche (which I remember being told was actually a different sort of cream but truly wasn’t distinguishably different) is a classic.
The scallop dish that came to the table next was, overall, one of Jungsik’s best, adeptly treading the line between execution and creativity. The bivalve was crusted with a kimchi barley rice that injected just the right crunch and hint of acid alongside the buttery protein. Beneath the scallop were a yogurt sour cream, bell pepper purée, and chorizo salsa that, though three “sauces” might seem busy, each brought tang, sweetness, and salt respectively to the plate. I would normally find myself ruing a crusted piece of seafood, but chef Jungsik Yim (yes, his name also means “formal dinner”) crafted an elegant and unusually hearty, multidimensional scallop dish.
The restaurant’s octopus dish–braised in dashi for three hours then grilled to a pleasing crisp–looks to be one of their mainstays and for good reason. The tentacles combined a charred crunch with the razor thin, optimal amount of a chew of an expertly cooked cephalopod. Further, the earthy hint of the dashi braise provided a good foundation for the acidity of the accompanying tomatoes and the spice of the ssamjang aioli (primarily a bean paste with fermented red chili).
While the seafood had hitherto impressed, the restaurant’s impressive presentation of red mullet filet fell flat on flavor. With the scales of the fish left on, the fillet is cooked by ladling multiple scoops of piping hot oil over its top, causing the scales to pop to attention like a forest of baby shrimp shells. The mullet itself, it must be said, was cooked wonderfully, luscious all the way through and essential to balancing the incredibly crisp, oil-shocked scales. That said, it was a creative, textural triumph but otherwise bland, with an accompanying sweet shrimp salsa proving instead to be the highlight of the dish.
Overall more pleased than displeased with the opening three seafood dishes, I eagerly awaited Jungsik’s delightfully decadent take on a meaty Korean classic: bulgogi. Classically a grilled, marinated beef, the restaurant’s take on the dish combined thin strips of wagyu with a white truffle pâté, wild sesame, and quinoa. While this was my most anticipated dish on the menu–having spied it online several days prior–it was a complete letdown.
Though the beef itself was tender, it was scant and in desperate need of more marinade or seasoning. The white truffle, even considering the blandness of the beef, offered little, and I would have easily preferred they leave out the luxury ingredient in favor of more beef. A great bulgogi, for me, is an in-your-face wallop of savory meat, onions, soy, and garlic that encapsulates why Koreans are experts at barbecue. Jungsik’s “New Korean” take was painfully dainty and soulless in favor of flashy ingredients.
The last savory course, a piece of wagyu tenderloin with mushrooms and crisp potatoes, was also cooked properly but equally uninspired. Apart from a small sprinkling of pickled sancho peppers, it looked and tasted like the sort of dish you’d get at any American fine dining restaurant that simply wanted to “showcase” wagyu instead of crafting a meaningful dish with the well-marbled beef. I can understand playing it safe with an expensive cut of meat, but perhaps the kitchen (for their tasting menu mind you) should have considered a heartier course featuring the decidedly traditional Korean beef short ribs than a meager, middle of the road take on tenderloin.
Dessert was comprised of a refreshing lemon olive sorbet and a take on a Mont Blanc that, while nicely sweet and decadent, was far more like the bunny slope than anything you’d see in the Alps. I understand that Jungsik should perhaps not be held to making every dish (or the experience itself) “appropriately” Korean. However, if their goal is to show how Korean ingredients and ideas play with a more traditional, European style of fine dining, they need to realize that a menu cannot rely on big-name, luxury components alone to satisfy customers. The restaurant even sacrificed any sort of salad or soup component to the meal, which might have been a way to impress with more modest ingredients, in lieu of a central protein component in each course.
I hardly hesitate paying for quality food and have even learned to begrudgingly accept more “modest” and “elegant” sized plates of food, but the depth of flavor just wasn’t there at Jungsik. Semilla, for example, cost a third(!) of the price while being–without the aid of truffle or wagyu–far more filling and satisfying taste-wise. Fine dining doesn’t mean blindly using “finer” ingredients, and I truly hope “New Korean” cuisine doesn’t mean abandoning flavor–traditional or not–for flash.
Date Visited: 9/11/15