Korean Modernization

D'or AhnPhoto: Jeremy Liebman

With its smoky barbecuing rituals and clannish taste for great fermented vats of kimchi, Korean cooking would appear to be the most impregnable, least adaptable of Asian cuisines. But in this new globalist era of wandering-gypsy chefs and year-round, jet-age ingredients, it seems nothing is safe from culinary experimentation. Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese flavors are generally associated with that dreaded term “Asian fusion,” but this year a whole new variety of odd international combinations have been popping up around town. There are new Chinese fusion joints to choose from, new Indian fusion joints, and new joints peddling muddled fusion versions of Malaysian cuisine. D’or Ahn, which opened not long ago on the fringes of Tenth Avenue and 23rd Street in Chelsea, is the Korean addition to this internationalist jamboree, and although the sleek little restaurant looks modern in every way, I have to admit that when I saw dishes called “house made kimchi flat bread,” and “Korean style” shellfish bouillabaisse on the menu, I was not optimistic.

D’or Ahn
207 Tenth Ave., nr. 23rd St.; 212-627-7777

Cercle Rouge
241 W. Broadway, nr. White St.; 212-226-6252

Happily, I was wrong. D’or Ahn (the name is a blend of owner Lannie Ahn’s name and the French word for gold) turns out to be a subtle, even elegant little restaurant, a place where unlikely sounding combinations produce the most interesting, unlikely results. The narrow room is dark and cloistered, like a private Asian drinking club, and it’s built inside what looks, from the street, like a polished concrete bunker. The clubby atmosphere is enhanced by an insistently loud sound system and Asian-influenced cocktails like a complex martini-style drink spiked with a suddenly fashionable Korean rotgut called soju. But the seriousness of the kitchen is announced by a pre-dinner snack of warm, freshly made rice crackers, which melt a little when you dip them in a soy-based sauce spiked with jalapeño. After that comes the first salvo of appetizers: short ribs marinated in classic Korean style in soy, sesame oil, garlic, and ginger, but served with a rich mash of whipped celeriac; slivers of duck breast smoked in pine needles; and the kimchi flat breads, which turn out to be a light, curiously Italianate treat, topped with arugula and shavings of Pecorino Romano cheese.

These dishes are the work of Rachel Yang, a Korean-American (she grew up in South Korea and moved here when she was 15), who not surprisingly is a veteran of such topflight kitchens as Per Se, DB Bistro Moderne, and Alain Ducasse. Her cooking is classical in structure and technique, but informed by all sorts of deft cross-cultural touches. Take that old Korean staple bibimbob, which is made here with mushrooms instead of meat. The rice is shaped in a rectangle, decked with a single egg yolk, then plated with lines of black-sesame-and-red-chili sauce, like a Mondrian painting. A seafood appetizer I sampled consisted of expertly seared rounds of scallop, each one topped with a nickel of frizzled Korean sesame leaf filled with tiny deposits of scallop mousse. The short ribs had a distinctive Korean flavor (although the whipped celeriac is folded with horseradish), but if you order the pork appetizer, you will receive a frothy bowl of continental-style mushroom soup, containing two round, crisp fried raviolis stuffed with a very un-Korean mash of pork cheeks and quail eggs.

There are only five entrées on the menu at D’or Ahn, and predictably, none involves sizzling barbecue or clouds of garlic-tinged smoke. My favorite was the pork belly, which is braised to a kind of fatty tenderness in sweet bean paste and served over a risotto made, ingeniously, with millet. Korean bouillabaisse turns out to be a slightly sweeter, spicier version of the original, with a profusion of fresh shellfish and a sprinkling of spaetzle flavored with saffron. There is also a standard rib eye, and a standard baby chicken stuffed not with chestnuts but with rice flavored with ginseng. When dessert rolls around, the slight Korean touches are barely perceptible, which, given my limited experience with Korean desserts, is not such a bad thing. There’s a good, very French chocolate soufflé, and a nice sabayonlike confection laced with apples. Best of all is a rich, sugary upside-down cake. It’s layered with slivers of something called “Korean pear,” but if you want a real taste of the Old Country, try the ice cream, which is tinged with chili.

Cercle Rouge, which opened not long ago in Tribeca, is the new home of another talented chef, one who has chosen to follow a less risky, more familiar path. The last time David Féau surfaced on the New York dining scene he was creating esoteric foie gras preparations at the final, doomed incarnation of Lutèce. At Cercle Rouge, he uses his considerable talents to come up with a delicious interpretation of Buffalo chicken wings. The restaurant, which is decorated with potted palms and old French movie posters, follows the time-honored brasserie formula with a kind of slavish, connect-the-dots devotion. So it’s no surprise that frisée salad is on the menu (bombed with perhaps a few too many pork lardons), along with a whole slew of not very distinguished raw-bar items (wet, overpriced lobster cocktail; thin, barely palatable fluke seviche with the consistency of dank candle wax) and a variety of fish and steak dishes that you can mix and match, in the new dining fashion, with a variety of sauces and sides.

Aside from the excellent Buffalo wings (the blue-cheese sauce is whipped with crème fraîche), the best things at Cercle Rouge seem to be beef-related. There’s a formidable-looking côte de boeuf, sliced for two (it costs a formidable $55), and decent hanger and sirloin variations on the old steak-frites theme. There are very good organic lamb chops, and a nice cut of New York strip presented on a warm cutting board graced with huge decorative bulbs of garlic. The seafood (mediocre skate, okay cod and John Dory) is undistinguished, especially when doused with obscure, waiter-recommended sauces like Szechuan carrot jus. The frites are properly crisp and crinkly, and the brasserie hounds at my table liked the side dishes well enough, particularly the buttery, gourmet mashed potatoes and a weirdly successful invention called curried bok choy. You can get a flight of weirdly unsuccessful crème brûlées for dessert flavored with, among other things, litchis. But if you’re wise, you’ll do the safe thing in this eminently safe neighborhood restaurant. You’ll order the tarte Tatin.

D’or Ahn
Address: 207 Tenth Ave., nr. 23rd St.; 212-627-7777
Hours: Dinner, Tuesday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 11:30. Sunday to 10:30.
Prices: Appetizers, $8 to $18. Entrées: $20 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Short ribs, braised pork belly, Korean pear upside-down cake.
Korean food may not be your thing, but if you enjoy grilled cheese sandwiches, D’or Ahn’s blue-cheese version, served as a dessert-slash-cheese course, is excellent

Cercle Rouge
Address: 241 W. Broadway, nr. White St.; 212-226-6252
Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 to 4. Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday to 1:30. Sunday to midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $7 to $23. Entrées: $16 to $55.
Ideal Meal: Buffalo wings, prime organic New York strip, tarte Tatin.
Note: As befits a French establishment, the French wines on the list are modestly priced and well chosen, particularly the Burgundies.

Korean Modernization