A month ago, I had the pleasure of dining at Jung Sik Dang (정식당), the Korean fine dining restaurant opened by ex-Bouley alum Jung Sik Yim. Located in the old Chanterelle spot, previously one of my favorite French restaurants, the restaurant must have inherited some good food karma (but hopefully not business karma), because it was one of the best meals I’ve had this year. I was surprised it was so good, because prior to going, I’d read several negative reviews online. The crux of the negativity was that it wasn’t Korean enough, which after eating at Jung Sik, I’m baffled. Sure, the food doesn’t resemble anything from 32nd Street, Flushing, or my mom’s kitchen, but this isn’t your typical Korean restaurant. It’s elevated, modern Korean with a European finesse, but Korean nonetheless.
For example, at Jung Sik, the amuse bouche consisted of a tiny black sesame chip with yuja (yuzu, for those only familiar with the Japanese pronunciation) compote, homemade tofu, Korean fried chicken with a spicy aioli, and a tiny bulgogi slider, bun and all. My companions — David, Christina, and Will — fawned over the burger, which was indeed adorable, but while the bulogogi taste was there, I wasn’t crazy about the minced texture of the meat. My favorite was the sesame cracker which had the airy texture of Korean fried seaweed chips but without the processed flavor.
Bibim ($15), a deconstructed Caprese salad with tomatoes, mozzarella, and arugula sorbet, had been another source of derision. What’s Korean about this dish? Not much, except before you eat it, you mix it all up (bibim means mixed in Korean), and the result is the most refreshing salad ever. It’s almost dessert-like because of the sorbet, but the savoriness of the cheese, tomatoes, and peppery arugula reel it back into appetizer land. It’s not Korean in the traditional sense, but it’s a whimsical take on a bibim. Perhaps it was an inside joke lost in translation.
Sea Urchin ($27), seaweed rice with fresh sea urchin and crispy quinoa, was my favorite of the night. The contrast of the creamy sea urchin and the crisp quinoa was quite nice, but I loved the seaweed rice which tasted like rice infused with umami-rich miyeok guk (미역국, seaweed soup). Together with the fresh uni, it was seafood bliss. My only complaint was the vase-like bowl it was served in which made it difficult to dig out all the delicious rice and quinoa without a bit of bowl man-handling.
Lobster ($42), with beurre blanc, raspberry coulis, and Korean yellow mustard was probably the least Korean tasting of everything we ate (aside from dessert), but nevertheless delicious. The lobster was tender, the beurre blanc smooth, and the sweet raspberry coulis and spicy mustard curbed the richness.
Cod ($39), black cod in a soy-pepper marinade, tasted like an extremely elegant version of daegu jorim (대구 조림), cod braised in spicy soy sauce. It wasn’t as spicy, but the essence was there.
On the non-seafood spectrum of the menu, Wagyu ($50) with a kimchi sesame purée was incredibly tender, but for me, the best part was the generous amount of sesame oil in the purée. Sesame oil, kimchi, and grilled beef is probably the most classic of Korean combinations. The only thing missing was a bowl of rice.
At the end of the meal I was too full for dessert, but as usual, David had room for something sweet and ordered the Plum ($12), a beautifully presented lychee-rose mousse with a sablé crumble. Was this Korean? Probably not, but it was very Asian in that it was very light; a quality much appreciated after such a filling meal. (We ordered the larger portion for each dish, but smaller tasting portions are also available for everything except dessert. I’ll probably do that next time.)
Dinner ended with a tiny shot of Korean ginger punch with cubed fruit and a plate of sook (쑥, mugwort) financiers, puffed rice chocolate bon bons, and yuja macarons. It was French mignardises with a Korean twist. The table favorite, as was mine, were the chocolates with the crisp rice and the creamy mousse-like center.
Convinced yet if Jung Sik is Korean enough? No need to answer, because the real question should be whether the restaurant is worth visiting, and the answer is emphatically, yes.
And because I love the restaurant so much (I was not paid to write this review nor was my meal comped), I’m giving away a $100 dinner for two at Jung Sik courtesy of CityEats, a new restaurant review/menu/reservation site created in partnership with the Food Network. To enter, take a look at Jung Sik’s menu on CityEats and write in the comments below the one dish you really want to try. I’ll be picking one winner at random. Giveaway ends Saturday (December 15, 2012) at noon. Good luck!
UPDATE (12/15): The winner is Jasmine, the sea urchin addict!