When you’re deciding on a restaurant, it’s not unusual to get the urge for Chinese, say, or Japanese or Italian–or even something a bit more esoteric, such as Lebanese or Indian. But it’s not often that one is overcome by a craving for Korean food (unless one happens to be Korean, perhaps). Yet Manhattan has a great many Korean restaurants, mostly centered in the mid-30’s, just west of Fifth Avenue. I’ve enjoyed going to them more as a curiosity really, kimchi and tripe soup the better, in my view, for being consumed just once in a while, like ginseng cocktails.
So I was quite surprised recently when my husband, who was just back from Los Angeles, announced that he had eaten the best meal of his life at a Korean restaurant in Beverly Hills. (My husband is not given to hyperbole when it comes to food. He’s the sort of person from whom, after a great dinner at some gastronomic temple like Jean-Georges or Lespinasse, the words “It was O.K.” are high praise).
It was a Sunday night when he made this startling pronouncement. We were in the car with our 11-year-old son, driving back from a weekend in the country. The restaurant in question was called Woo Lae Oak, and it had just opened a branch in SoHo around the corner from where we live. I reached for the cell phone (feeling very L.A.) and called to see if they were open for dinner. “There’s no need to reserve,” said a woman who answered the telephone. “Just come on in.”
Half an hour later, we trickled in. We were dressed in jeans and sneakers; we should have been wearing black. This Woo Lae Oak is nothing if not downtown. It’s like an extension of Mercer Kitchen across the way: all sweeping lines, elegant, sleek and dark, intimate while being actually quite vast. It is to the casual midtown Korean restaurant as Nobu is to the average sushi joint. The place is visually stunning, with a curve of marble overhanging a long granite bar, behind which is an open kitchen, all stainless steel and chrome, where a brigade of cooks in white hats is hard at work. There is another large dining room in the back, too. But between our telephone call and our arrival it seemed that half of SoHo had decided to check out the latest new arrival (soon to be flanked by a downtown branch of Prada), and every table had been taken.
The manager who greeted us was more than apologetic when he broke the news. He seated us at the bar, where he said we could eat, and insisted on bringing us drinks on the house. From this vantage point, we could watch the cooks at work, tossing bits of raw meat in sugar and sesame oil.
My son was devastated because, facing the kitchen, in front of a row of banquettes, he noticed large granite-topped tables, lit with candles, that have gas grills inside. The customers who were lucky enough to be seated there were cooking their food over the grills, hunkered over like cowboys on the range.
“I want to cook my food myself,” he said, not the normal attitude for an expensive dinner in a fancy restaurant. But one of the pivotal experiences of his early childhood was dining at a Japanese restaurant where we cooked beef on a stone, and he has never forgotten it. Not even the prospect of shrimp dumplings and barbecued spareribs could make up for the disappointment. But after we had given our order, the manager appeared out of the blue to tell us a table had opened up. “Yes!” cried my son, leaping from the barstool.
For years, Woo Lae Oak had a very different branch in midtown, which had great steak tartare and ginseng cocktails served by waitresses in Korean national costume. A few years ago, unfortunately, it was destroyed by a fire. Meanwhile the company, which established its first restaurant back in 1946, had established places (in addition to Beverly Hills and New York) in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Seoul. But the SoHo branch is clearly geared for the downtown crowd, from its sumptuous bathrooms with smoky glass doors to the smooth ebony chopsticks on the tables. No waitresses in national costume, either: The staff is dressed in black. And while kimchi and tripe are on the menu, the food is very different from the usual Korean fare.
“We are serving a new generation of Korean cooking,” said the manager over the telephone when I called later. “We are taking traditional Korean cuisine, stylizing it and making it more pleasing to the eye. It’s not in any way fusion. It’s nouveau Korean.”
It’s also very, very good. The chef, Eun San Yi, is from Beverly Hills, and he has done with Korean cooking what Nobu Matsuhisa did with sushi. You can begin with delicious light spinach crepes rolled around chunks of moist Dungeness crab, or baked stuffed giant clams with a spicy topping, browned under the broiler. Steak tartare comes with sliced Korean pear; broiled eel simmered in sweet soy sauce is served on a hot stone.
The dumplings are exceptional, made with a light, silken dough: shrimp in packets shaped like giant tortellini, with pristine vegetables including baby corns, carrots and broccoli, and sautéed beef and kimchi dumplings that have an agreeable, pungently smoky taste. Shrimp dumplings come floating in a rich chicken broth laced with strips of scallions and cellophane noodles. “The broth is delicious,” I said, taking a spoonful from my son’s bowl.
“I know,” he replied. “That’s what I mainly was feasting on.”
He also loves sausages, but the beef sausage with toasted garlic–essentially a coarse blood sausage that reminded me not a little of haggis–was a bit beyond him. Not so the melting short ribs simmered in sweet soy sauce, however. The black cod simmered in a sweet, spicy sauce with garlic and soy was excellent too, and the kimchi was crisp and spicy.
But the barbecue is the pièce de résistance . The waiter comes, flips up the top and turns on the gas. A couple of minutes later, the marinated meats, seafood and vegetables arrive–of which there is a choice of nearly two dozen. It includes such esoteric meats as beef tongue, ostrich and tripe as well as tuna, beef, scallops, pork with spicy sauce and mushrooms. The boneless duck was a bit fatty and tough; the squid was fine as long as you remembered that squid has to be cooked either a very short or a very long time.
The desserts are stylish and Western. We wound up with room only for a pear which appeared in a grilled crepe, cut on the bias and served warm with ice cream.
“Well, what did you think?” I asked my husband on the way out.
“Pretty much O.K.”
Woo Lae Oak
148 Mercer Street
Noise level: Fine
Wine list: Reasonable, with good choices for Korean food
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Main courses $10 to $28
Lunch: Sunday to Thursday noon to 11 P.M.
Dinner: Friday to Saturday noon to 11:30 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * * Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor