Mon-Sat, 6pm-midnight; Sun: closed
N, R, W at 28th St.
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Not so long ago, ambitious chefs tended to follow their first, modestly sized hit restaurant with a larger, more elaborately scaled operation located, say, at the bottom of a skyscraper in midtown. But like other talented young cooks who open sandwich shops (Rich Torrisi & Co.) and bars (Dale Talde) after hitting the big time in this stripped-down, cash-strapped era, Hooni Kim has chosen to go in the opposite direction. If anything, his new Flatiron restaurant, Hanjan, is more modest and utilitarian than the shoe-box-size Danji, which opened to rave reviews in Hell’s Kitchen a couple of years ago. There are no windows in the narrow, minimalist space. Filament bulbs hang by bits of twine from the ceiling. Pillows are strewn here and there on a comfortable banquette on one side of the room, but the polished gray walls reminded one of my well-traveled guests of “a posh noodle shop in the Seoul subway.”
Hanjan, it turns out, isn’t even being billed as a restaurant, exactly, at least not in the classic sense of the word. It’s Kim’s updated, big-city homage to the old travelers’ taverns of Korea, called joomaks, which in style and atmosphere resemble the gastropubs of England and the old-fashioned izakayas of rural Japan. As at Danji, the bare-bones, deceptively simple small-plates menu here is divided into columns, labeled “Traditional,” “Modern,” and “Skewers.” But the food has a heavier, more rustic, more classically Korean feel to it than Kim’s cooking uptown, and many of the dishes—the barbecue skewers threaded with chicken hearts or sizzling strips of gizzard, sticky ddukbokki (rice cakes) tossed in pork fat, vats of viscous, spicy cod-roe stew—are designed to be consumed at the bar, in a spicy lather, with copious amounts of sake, soju, and bottles of cold beer.
The first dish my tasters and I sampled was a classic scallion-and-squid pajeon pancake, which in lightness and texture was about as different from your sodden, run-of-the-mill pajeon as a fresh-baked apple pie is from a frozen Sara Lee version. We had the pleasingly chewy ddukbokki after that, followed by a serving of bokkeum bap (Korean fried rice) mixed with a bracing radish kimchee and crispy chunks of chopped brisket. My friend the Octopus Loon thought the nuggets of the cephalopod in the similarly spiced octopus stir-fry had an unpleasant, knobby texture, but no one at the table had any complaints about the buttery (as opposed to oily) grilled mackerel, which the kitchen plates with wedges of lemon and cooling shreds of daikon.
Kim won a Michelin star at Danji (he’s trained with Daniel Boulud, among others), and he has a knack for elevating these home-style recipes with classic technique. The delicately deboned Hanjan-style pork trotter wouldn’t be out of place in a top French bistro, provided you remove the little bowl of fermented shrimp dipping sauce it comes with. The house chicken is “fresh killed,” according to the menu, and broken down into the aforementioned skewers (a total of five varieties), excellent wings marinated in sake and soy, and spicy-sweet morsels of tong dak-style fried chicken. Only two perfunctory desserts are offered at this New Age joomak (sweet, glutinous rice ice cream and a sorbet duo), so save your money for another round of drinks, in particular the pale, frothy rice beer called Makgeolli, which is as smooth as coconut water and almost as sweet.
The excellent, spicy, Korean-style house ramen is only served after 10 p.m.Ideal Meal
Scallion-and-squid pancake, grilled mackerel or fried chicken, pork trotter, Makgeolli rice beer.