Opening a restaurant in New York is hard enough—even more so when said restaurant is signless and concealed by scaffolding on a side street, the way the new WaWa Canteen is. Although it’s surreptitiously replaced a long-standing Korean restaurant at the same location, there’s no mistaking this new arrival for its bare-bones predecessor: Where Manna was lovably decrepit, the light-tiled WaWa (Korean for “come, come”) is sleek and stylish, with molded chairs, pressed-wood tables, and leather-cushioned benches (one of the owners is an architect). But if your vision of Korean cuisine involves clothes-permeating barbecue smoke and rice that sizzles to a delectable crunch on the bottom of its too-hot-to-touch bowl, WaWa might come as something of a newfangled surprise. The food seems lighter and cleaner, leavened with a smattering of Asian-fusion touches—Korea lite, via California, which is where chef Donna Lee trained and last cooked. Which isn’t to say dumbed down—the kimchi stew with pork and vegetables still packs a satisfyingly spicy punch. The appetizers have a particular Japanese flair, especially the block of creamy tofu garnished with bonito flakes in a sesame sauce. WaWa’s bibimbop is basically a rice bowl with a profusion of leafy greens and cooked vegetables, still tasty even without the dish-defining rice crust. Save for the pajun (doughy pancakes), kimchi rice, and a side of tofu, there’s a ban on frying—even the dumplings are steamed. Counter service and a workable inventory of interchangeable ingredients keep prices under $8, incentive enough for NYU students and budget-conscious locals, in search of spa food and Seoul food alike, to heed WaWa’s call and beat a path to its inconspicuous door.
289 Mercer St., nr. Waverly Pl.; 212-473-6162