UPDATE 8/18/09: Sad news, Persimmon Kimchi House seems to have closed. I wish I hadn’t been so prophetic. I hope Chef Youngsun Lee has found something new and wonderful to do.
Diane, Rosalyn, Seongeun, and I went to Persimmon Kimchi House, the “neo-Korean” restaurant in the East Village for dinner last week. It sounds kind of silly, “neo-Korean,” but now that I’ve eaten there, I can say that it really is “New Korean” and in the best way possible.
For a long time, the Korean restaurants in Manhattan were all the same. They were all on 32nd St., between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. They all had table-side grills for galbi, bulgogi, and other grilled meats, but they also had giant menus with embossed leather, like old-time photo albums, filled with at least 30 other dishes, even so-so sushi. None of the 30 other dishes were particularly spectacular. None of them served food that stayed in your mind, with flavors that lingered in your mouth, that made you dream of that one dish at that one restaurant when you were far from New York.
None of them were restaurants you would find in Korea.
Of course, there are plenty of Korean barbecue joints in Korea, but they compete on the quality of their meat, offering one or two stews and a couple of cold noodle dishes to round out the meal. When you want to eat dumplings, you go to the dumpling house, not the galbi+everything else house. When you want to eat naengmyeon or chewy noodles in a cold, vinegary broth, the flavor of that broth is so crucial and so hard to get right, you want to go where their passion is that broth. (And often, good dumplings and naengmyeon will be found in the same place since they’re both northern dishes.)
In the past five to ten years, though, Koreatown has slowly changed. The specialty restaurants that started cropping up in LA, Flushing, and Fort Lee, the ones that do resemble restaurants in Korea, have started opening branches on 32nd St. and even 35th St. You can finally a great bowl of sundubu-jjigae, that intensely red soft tofu stew, at BCD Tofu House, a branch of a chain based in southern California. If you want to try not-so-red but still traditional variations on tofu stews, there’s the lovely Cho Dang Gol, which specializes in more subtle flavors. There’s a tiny take-out booth that makes only different kinds of kimbap, roasted seaweed wrapped around rice with a variety of meats and vegetables. There’s not one but two Korean-Chinese restaurants, serving Korean-Chinese favorites like jiangjiang-myeon, or noodles in black bean sauce. (The one on 35th St. is better.)
And people started opening Korean restaurants outside of Koreatown, in hip, not obviously Korean neighborhoods like the East Village, Tribeca, and Park Slope. (Park Slope isn’t really hip, but you know what I mean.) Some of them serve up the same food as on 32nd St., just in spiffier quarters at higher price points. But some of them, like Persimmon Kimchi House, are really doing something different.
These are the kind of things listed on Persimmon’s menu:
- Eggplant with tofu dressing
- Crab/Kimchi croquette
- Vegetables and sweet potato noodle (japchae!)
- Pan-fried Korean beef “quiche”
- Fried stuffed squash blossoms
And wonderfully, they all taste Korean. The chef, Youngsun Lee, is a Momofuku alum, but unlike David Chang, he’s creating food that is adamantly Korean. He uses unusual ingredients to create flavors that are new but that would still be familiar to our grandparents. There was a slight fruity tartness, for example, to his baechu or cabbage kimchi that made it taste fresh and summery—it turned out to be strawberries.
The kimchi croquettes had the soft, smooth flavor of mashed potatoes, but more than anything, they reminded me of bindaetteok, or mung bean pancakes, made into an extra-crispy, explosively flavorful form.
The tofu dressing on the eggplant was silky smooth, clean and light, with little surprises in the form of crunchy, fried rice cakes.
Koreans don’t generally cook with squash blossoms, but if they knew they could stuff them with tofu the way Chef Lee does, they certainly would. Even the japchae, a glass noodle dish that always tastes too sweet and simpering to me, had more body than usual, maybe because of the heft of the mung bean sprouts and sautéed burdock root.
The stews, at least as described on the menu, were the most traditional but also the most exciting. The kimchi-jjigae was one of the best I’ve ever had, with the depth of flavor that comes from generous amounts of good kimchi and good pork. The sundubu-jjigae, filled with shrimp, octopus, and clams, blew all four of us away. It was white, without the fluorescent red colors of most sundubu. But it was still spicy, with a heat that reminded me of jalapenos or serranos, one that didn’t hit you in the face but still lingered without reservation. It wasn’t subtle, like Japanese tofu can be. It was proudly Korean, incredibly complex, and absolutely unforgettable.
We didn’t love everything we had. Two of the small plates, the pan-fried beef “quiche” or sogogi dubu-sun and the grilled octopus salad were overly salty, even by Korean banchan standards. (Though we loved the deep-fried lotus root garnish on the beef.) And one of my favorite dishes, bossam or pork belly wrapped with salted cabbage and spicy radish had such a strong soy sauce flavor, it was almost discomforting. It may be the first time in my life that pork belly was left unfinished. All of us agreed, we expect the pork belly in bossam to be pure and clean in flavor, all fat and almost no salt, all the better to play off the salted cabbage and radish. We didn’t want to eat caramel-colored pork belly, even if it is more visually appealing.
The two desserts on the menu, though, were wonderful. Although there are plenty of sweets in Korean cuisine, Koreans rarely eat more than fruit as a dessert course. Instead of forcing something more traditionally Korean to be a dessert, Persimmon served Western desserts with strong Asian flavors: black sesame bread pudding and ginger tofu mousse. They had the right kind of restraint for food eaten after a big, spicy meal, and the bread pudding, in particular, reminded me of the kind of thing Korean bakeries love to do.
Unfortunately, we were the only people there on Monday night. It’s a small restaurant with one large common table and a few seats at a bar right in front of the open kitchen. It’s the kind of cooking that deserves more than one party of four, even on a Monday, but our reaction to the bossam made me wonder if, even after all these years, New York is ready for a restaurant like this.
For all the attention Asian and Korean food in particular has been getting recently, people are generally more willing to pay $15 for a plate of mediocre pasta than for a bowl of transcendent Asian noodles. There’s a certain type of Western eater who prides himself on only eating “ethnic” food in hole-in-the-walls, forgetting that high-quality ingredients and talent deserve a premium all over the world. And maybe most sadly, recent immigrants are much more conservative than people back home about what’s done to “their” food. It’s understandable—all they want is a taste that brings them back to the world they left—but in the meantime, the world they left has moved on. Maybe I am too much like these people as well. Maybe non-Koreans who don’t love the original bossam as much as I do would find Persimmon’s version delicious and balanced.
I really want Persimmon to succeed. It’s so rare to find Korean food in the U.S. that’s truly new, and rare in any field to find an artist who manages to surprise you without resorting to gimmick. Persimmon Kimchi House would be a sensation in Seoul, where people are obsessed with finding new food, where they would marvel that familiar foods could still surprise them. I don’t know what Chef Lee’s plans are, but at least for now, I’m glad to have a Korean restaurant that could be in Korea but isn’t, a one-of-a-kind you can find only in New York.