Hansik Deconstructed: Korean Fine Dining Takes NY

Hansik Deconstructed: Korean Fine Dining Takes NY

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Chef Hyunseok Choi’s Fried Foie Gras & Ricotta with Ganjang Ice Cream was the night’s playful dish. Photo by @ChefsSociety

Hansik Deconstructed: Korean Fine Dining Takes New York

What is Korean food? In the wake of the magnificent KoreaNYC Gala Dinner, I’m forced to revisit some notions I held. Five of Korea’s top chefs came to New York City to collaborate in a set of dinners. Hansik (Korean cuisine), at its highest levels, is profoundly delicious – but also surprisingly different from what I expected.

Jungsik Yim, our charming host (he has namesake restaurants in Seoul and NYC) and the first Korean to receive two Michelin stars, explains that Korean fine dining is now ten years old. “We are expanding. We need time.” By evidence presented at this dinner, Korean fine dining has arrived.

Over a magnificent meal of many hours and courses, organized by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Korea’s fine food magazine La Main, this all star team made several points eminently clear about the category:

  • Fermentation – the distinctive heart of Korean food – remains central to Korean fine dining.
  • Vegetables drive the flavors.
  • The food looks fantastic.
  • The big, fiery flavors I love in KTown USA are not a part of today’s Korean fine dining scene.

Five chefs represented Korea for this event:

  • Hyun-Seok Choi – Elbon The Table, Seoul
  • Jinmo Jang – A&ND Dining, Seoul
  • Mingoo Kang – Mingles, Seoul
  • Tony Yoo – 24 Seasons, Seoul
  • Jungsik Yim – Jungsik, Seoul & NYC

Four of these great chefs are now media stars in a country where TV is now full of fine dining. The chef job is suddenly a job of choice and lots of young people want to be chefs, according to Chef Choi – but unlike many American stars, each of these chefs still actively cooks in his restaurant.

Each of the five chefs deconstructs Hansik’s traditional flavors in his own way, but each relies on the very Korean notion of vegetarian fermentation. Unlike Japanese or Italian cuisines, for example, which draw umami from a featured ingredient (kombu or an animal), Korean cuisine relies on sauces from fermented soy or grains. The slower, more artisanal Korean processes for making maeju (fermented soybean) instill deeper flavor than one would find in, say, the typical industrial miso.

Korean fine dining is clearly influenced by the outside world. Most of its top practitioners have worked elsewhere and the demand for Western food in Seoul is substantial. But as Chef Tony Yoo noted and the others agreed, childhood flavors, often from Korean regions outside Seoul, remain the dominant inspiration. Those childhood flavors ran throughout the dinner, starting with waves of banchan. Chef Choi’s playful take on jeyuk bokkeum – a traditional lunch of stir fried pork and vegetables – compressed the whole dish, including gochujang and kimchi, into one explosively delicious macaron bite. Chef Jungik’s amuse – rice and tuna wrapped in laver (seaweed), playfully clipped with a clothes pin – showed similar whimsy, which would run through the meal.

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Each of the banchan dishes- notably Chef Yoo’s stunning bowl of crispy barley, rice ball and fried grasshopper on potato chip and greens – also made clear that the visuals are critical too. Seoul – perhaps more, even, than NYC – is a city teeming with food photographers. This was one of the prettiest meals I’ve eaten in a long time.

Chef Kang (whose Mingles is currently ranked Korea’s top restaurant), launched the main courses with E-Wha Ju Scallop. Served raw, in a dressing of E-Wha Ju – a traditional makgeolli from rice & yeast fermentation – the dish was light and gentle. Subtle hints of brine from the chopped roe played with the sweet scallops.

Chef Jang followed with Sea Urchin Dubu. The single cube of creamy, lightly fried dubu (tofu), absorbed all sorts of flavors from the complex blend around it. The uni was present in the sauce – but heightened by a bisque and fermented sauces: soy, ganjang, deonjang paste and mixed-chili gochujang. Crunchy quinoa and seaweed gave the bite meaningful texture.

Chef Hyun-Seok Choi’s Fried Foie Gras with Ganjang Ice Cream was the night’s playful dish. Drawing on traditional Korean seaweed snacks, he coated balls of ricotta or foie gras with seaweed flakes, then fried until crispy. His ganjang dipping sauce, chilled with liquid nitrogen to become ice cream coated the savory donut in an earthy cool.

Chef Jungsik Yim’s Gochu Jang Octopus showed his global heritage in the “gochujang aioli” on his perfectly-cooked octopus tentacle: less of gochujang’s traditional vinegar, more beurre blanc. Coated in rice flour and corn starch, his octopus has the texture of great fried chicken – and it paired wonderfully with a cold ale. Could Octo-Maek be the next big thing? Apparently it’s all the rage in Seoul.

Inspired by Ulleung, an islet on Korea’s East Coast, chef Mingoo Kang crafted delicate mandu (dumplings), stuffed with vegetables and fermented gobi, a local wild green. Two washed kimchis, including fermented myeongi, (mountain garlic), another local green, formed the core of the broth. Aromas and flavors evoking all sorts of reference points emerged with different bites and soup/mandu combos in this remarkable dish.

Tony Yoo closed out the mains with Pork Belly and Beef Jjim in Bamboo Trunk, the evening’s biggest, heartiest dish. By wrapping the pork belly and beef in lotus leaves, then steaming the meat in a bamboo trunk with hand foraged mushrooms, he retained extraordinary aromas of the woods, of nuts and fields – like the best mushroom and barley soup ever. His Gujeolpan – a riff on the traditional plate of nine side dishes, plus beet and Swiss chard – provided endless, clever combinations for wrapping and eating meat bites, ssam style.

Chef Jungsik ended the night on a beautiful, dramatic note, with his Yuja dessert. Bright yellow, it looked like a display fruit. In fact, the shell was a yuja (a citrus fruit) & white chocolate ganache. Smashing the shell, we found yuca marmalade and granny smith apples, both tart and creamy.

By the end of the evening, the crowd – chefs, writers and fans; Koreans and New Yorkers and serious eaters from all over – was exuberant. Though the meal was sponsored by the promoter of one of “world’s best restaurant” lists, Seoul has not yet made its mark as a global culinary capital. This inspiring, distinctive meal suggests that Korean fine dining’s moment is coming.

 

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Hansik Deconstructed: Korean Fine Dining Takes New York: Chefs Society’s columnist Matt Bruck jotted down his memo on the menu. Photo by  ⒸChefsSociety

 

Matt Bruck

[email protected]Chefs Society

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