Do Hwa is the latest new wave Korean restaurant to open downtown, following Dok Suni in the East Village and Woo Lae Oak in SoHo. It’s in a residential part of the West Village that has been injected with a bustling night life, thanks to hip young restaurants such as Isla, Blue Ribbon Bakery and Junno’s, all within a few quiet tree-lined blocks.
Jenny Kwak, an artist whose family emigrated from Korea in the late 70’s, is the owner of both Do Hwa and Dok Suni, and her mother, Myung Ja Kwak, is the executive chef. The new restaurant is just as cool as its sibling, but it’s much larger and every bit as crowded. While Dok Suni feels more like a bar, Do Hwa, designed by Hassan Abouseda, suggests a Korean house, and a striking one at that. The walls are paneled with dark brown leather that looks from a distance like polished wood, and lined with banquettes topped with charcoal-blue cushions. Back-lit shadow boxes decorated with Korean characters punctuate panels topped with a row of glazed clay pots originally made for fermenting kimchi. The dark wooden tables, some with gas grills in the middle, are set with candles and brown paper mats. Naked bulbs with glowing filaments hang from gridwork in the ceiling and cast a subtle, low light over the very noisy room.
The clientele at Do Hwa is young and beautiful (and probably Internet rich), and at the bar they’re not drinking ginseng martinis but “cinema cocktails” in glowing colors, named after obscure movie characters. The one that looks like a creamsicle is “Al Neri,” Brando’s bodyguard in The Godfather (vodka, Cointreau and Tuaca), the turquoise one is “Mr. Blue,” a character in Reservoir Dogs (vodka, blue curacao and Cointreau). The drinks were created by Ms. Kwak as an homage to Quentin Tarantino, an investor in the restaurant, which is also a showcase for performance artists and downtown filmmakers, with midnight screenings and events on Fridays and Saturdays.
But I am here for the food. It’s very different from the cooking served in Korean restaurants on 32nd Street, which has always been a bit too esoteric for me (even though I do like tripe). While the new Woo Lae Oak serves updated, nouveau Korean food, with dishes like Dungeness crabs in crêpes and barbecued ostrich, Do Hwa, like its sister restaurant Dok Suni, serves hearty home cooking “for guests.” A good introduction to the cuisine is one of the four tasting menus (for four people, costing between $25 and $27 per person) from different regions. Also, at lunch you can get the “blue plate” special : an inexpensive combination of dishes like short ribs with rice, mung bean sprouts and cabbage, served in one compartmentalized dish with kimchi (cabbage pickled with red pepper). Banchan, traditional Korean condiments, are served with dinner and include kimchi, shredded potato, anchovies with seaweed salt, sautéed spinach, flat seaweed and a truly wonderful tofu (I know you don’t believe there’s such a thing, but it’s creamy and soft, like a fresh curd cheese).
Korean food doesn’t fall into the traditional Western mode of three courses, so the staff will help you put together different dishes to create a meal. Myung Ja Kwak is justly famous for her dumplings. The kimchi, pork and beef dumplings pack a spicy wallop, but I prefer the vegetable ones, light won ton half-moons stuffed with a crunchy, leafy filling, served with sesame dipping oil. A nice lighter start to a rich dinner is the spinach and watercress salad in a pine nut and vinegar dressing. Another good way to begin is with half-orders of stewed meats such as the deji kalbi, pork ribs stewed in red pepper and garlic sauce with white radish. The ribs fall off the bone and are coated with a rich, deep sauce given a zap of vinegar to cut the fat. Ojinxo bokum is a hot and spicy stir-fry of tender pieces of squid with chili peppers, carrots and green onions. For a main course, the classic bibimbop is excellent, a medley of rice and vegetables in a hot pot topped with beef strips, stir-fried kimchi and eggs–a dish created, it’s said, by Korean housewives resigned to eat the leftovers of their husbands’ meals.
Korean cooking has a do-it-yourself aspect, with gas grills set in the middle of the table like at Benihana. The meats are marinated in sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic, kiwi and onion juice and served up ready to cook. The waiter turned on the grill and put the food on it right away, without waiting for it to heat up! Nevertheless the kalbi gui, boneless beef short ribs, came out juicy (and not overcooked by me). The meats are a better choice than the seafood–a medley of scallops, shrimp, lobster tail, squid and oyster mushrooms that turned out to be rather tasteless, and quite a bit of work since they all had different cooking times and you had to pay attention. The grill dishes are served with lettuce, perilla leaves, cloves of raw garlic and green chili peppers (Korean food may be delicious but it’s not subtle). You wrap the meat in the leaves to make a package and dip them in a spicy sauce. I leave out the raw garlic.
I enjoyed most of the food at Do Hwa, but when it came to dessert, we parted company. Our waiter explained that they had been through quite a few tastings since the staff hadn’t warmed to the Korean desserts they’d tried initially. The current short menu of desserts uses Korean ingredients in Western-style creations. He brought over what appeared to be a lovely moist layer cake, covered with chocolate and filled with cream. “Yum,” said my companion, digging in. She took a mouthful and made a face. It was, unfortunately, the driest dessert she’d ever eaten.
A rolled sponge cake with mandarin orange tasted as though it were made of asbestos. A crêpe filled with red bean paste and served chilled was rubbery and stuck to your lips. A chocolate clove cake with banana ice cream was as dry as the layer cake, literally falling into fine crumbs when you cut into it. The smooth, soft leather wall felt the way the chocolate cake didn’t taste.
To wash away the taste of the cake I ordered green sea anemone tea. It arrived in a brandy glass, an exotic marine flower that released its scent gradually as you stirred it.
Friday, April 28 at midnight Do Hwa will begin a showing of movie classics from A to Z, beginning with Annie Hall . I think a cinema cocktail would be in order–I wonder what an “Annie Hall” would be?
55 Carmine Street, between Bedford Street and Seventh Avenue South
Noise level: High
Wine list: Short, reasonably priced, with a selection of sakes
Credit cards: All major cards except discover
Price range: Main courses $14 to $24
Dinner: Monday to friday noon to midnight; saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; friday and saturday late night menu to 2 a.m.; closed sunday
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor