“Refined” is not an adjective normally associated with Korean food. The hallmarks of the cuisine are kimchi, chilies and garlic. Meat is barbecued over smoking tabletop grills, and bowls of rice act as foils to spicy stews and sauces. But the cooking at D’Or Ahn, a new Korean restaurant in Chelsea, takes a radical departure from those conventions. Chef Rachel Yang, who has worked at Alain Ducasse, Per Se and DB Bistro Moderne, uses French techniques with traditional ingredients, reinventing Korean cuisine in playful and intriguing ways.
Kimchi is served like a pizza, on flat bread, sprinkled with pecorino Romano cheese. You probably won’t believe me, but it works. Bouillabaisse, made with shrimp, mussels, cockles and clams, is served in a deep, arched white bowl with pickled fennel and saffron spaetzle. Braised short ribs, marinated in traditional barbecue seasonings (sesame oil, soy, garlic and ginger) come with horseradish celeriac purée instead of rice—and the spice comes from the horseradish, not the marinade.
It’s easy to miss the entrance to the restaurant, a dark wood doorway set in a narrow concrete building sandwiched between a gas station and Tía Pol, a tapas bar on 10th Avenue at 23rd Street. (One evening, a friend spent a contentious 15 minutes at Tía Pol, thinking the restaurant had lost our reservation, until he realized he was in the wrong place.)
D’Or Ahn is decorated with a rustic Asian aesthetic, with slate and bare brick surfaces, wooden beams on the ceiling and industrial wire mesh covering one wall. Everything about the place is cool and stylish, from the heavy cutlery and the varnished wooden Korean chopsticks to the tiny red cast-iron casseroles of rice served on the side (which include sautéed beef, tiny crispy shrimp or dried scallops and chestnuts).
At the entrance is a small poured-concrete bar where you can start the evening with an Asian-inspired house cocktail, a lychee or soju martini, or a mojito made with rum and sesame leaves. A short flight of steps leads up to a long dining room that has just 50 seats. An elevated platform runs along one side of the room, where walnut tables are mounted on rails. They can slide together into larger tabletops when a plank is removed from the floor. In front of the kitchen is a glassed-in wine cellar. There are a little more than two dozen bottles on the international list, which is fairly priced and carefully chosen to go with the unusual food.
Given its location hard by Chelsea’s galleries, it’s hardly surprising that D’Or Ahn attracts a young, arty-looking crowd. The owner, Lannie Ahn, is Korean, and she was formerly a marketing executive with Coca-Cola. Dressed in a pale-blue chiffon blouse, low-slung belt and scalloped silk skirt, she greets her customers like a hostess at a dinner party. One evening, I watched her patiently explaining the menu to a table of four young Asian women, all of whom wore marvelous offbeat clothes.
The short menu is organized under categories (a practice that seems ever more popular in restaurants around town). They are “cold,” “hot,” “main” and “sweet.” The menu comes with a plate of white rice cakes and a soy-based dipping sauce. The cakes don’t have much taste; it’s all in the sauce.
You can begin with fluke marinated in kelp and served with a lemon risotto and sukgat, a Korean bittergreen that tastes a bit like arugula. The fluke was very good, but I’d have liked some sauce with it. Octopus was deluged with greens in a pleasantly spicy dressing, enlivened with pickled grapes and pears.
If anything, Ms. Yang’s food is occasionally too timidly seasoned. It’s the first time I’ve been to a Korean restaurant where, instead of ordering rice to tone down the spices, I’ve asked for chili sauce. Mushroom bibimbap, topped with an egg, was tossed in a black sesame dressing. There was a swatch of chili sauce pasted so thoroughly to the plate that it seemed part of its design—it wouldn’t come off! So we ordered chili sauce, which arrived in a generous shiny red lump on a plate.
Ms. Yang decided that Americans weren’t quite ready for a popular Korean dish called samgyetang, which is a soup made with boiled chicken and ginseng. So, instead, she roasts a poussin in a cast-iron casserole after stuffing it in the traditional manner with sweet rice flavored with ginseng dates, chestnuts and garlic. It comes with braised endive and a “natural jus” cappuccino served in a giant white cup. You drink it and feel like Alice in Wonderland.
Ever since Nobu introduced black cod with miso, chefs all over town have taken up the idea. But Ms. Yang thinks miso is too heavy for this delicate, buttery fish, so she poaches it in a daikon broth with dashi, chili flakes and soy sauce. It comes with a lovely bread pudding made with whole-grain mustard. A mung-bean popover, like a Yorkshire pudding, comes with the juicy pepper-crusted rib eye, which is a superb piece of meat. Nestled inside the popover is a surprise: oxtail ragout.
Korean seasonings—ginger, sesame leaves and chili peppers—show up in the desserts, too. A perfect, puffed-up dark chocolate soufflé is given a subtle jolt with five-spice powder and is cooled down with a creamy sesame-based ice cream. Baked custard in a cast-iron casserole is filled with four kinds of apple, dried cranberries and figs, and sprinkled with ginger crystal for crunch. In Korea, a meal ends with a ginger tea to cleanse the palate, so a ginger-cinnamon tea sorbet comes with the baked apples.
As its cheese course, D’Or Ahn serves a grilled sandwich of Fourme d’Ambert on fennel raisin bread with crispy gingko. It’s a unique, winning combination, like D’Or Ahn itself.