Chef Eddie Huang is the second generation American-Born Taiwanese (ABT) mastermind behind BaoHaus, the East Village eatery that delivers perfect pork buns and other excellent takes on the street food Eddie grew up eating. The closest Eddie came to “formal” cooking training was from his mother. Influenced by her style, he developed his own unique recipes and techniques by eating out, taking notes, and recreating dishes at home. Recently he was named one of the best chefs using social media by both Chow and Bon Appétit. Follow him: @MrEddieHuang.
Jung Sik wants to be the “first high-end, thoroughly modern Korean restaurant in New York.” If “modern” means a Korean Francophile’s expensive and long-winded tasting menu, then they're undoubtedly modern in every sense of the word. But if modern means something more like Roy Choi, who serves a modern, personal, Korean-American story through $2 tacos, then NY is still waiting for its first thoroughly modern Korean restaurant or, better yet, a Kogi Truck on dub-deuces. Cause if I had a food truck, it’d be sittin’ on 22-inch Daytons with Uncle Murda yelling “Ohhh, I’m gettin’ paper.”
For too long, “modern” has meant taking foreign flavors and applying French technique, service, and a 200% mark-up on something you could get in an ethnic neighborhood. In the last decade, a lot of chefs have finally acknowledged French guilt and worked under the banner of New American. I love it. They’re cognizant of pricing, integrity of cuisine, and they respect the ingredients. Those that decided to take it a step further—traveling and working in the country of origin—now also respect the technique and I applaud them. It's dope to see people who want to see how we do it before impressing their hotel pans and ovens on us. Going into those restaurants, I also don’t expect authentic and nor should you. Chefs are artists choosing to tell a story on plates. They aren’t trying to write the next Romance of the Three Kingdoms, they’re selling you a personal snapshot of one period or inspiration in their lives. Kareem doing Kung-Fu is a beautiful thing.
When it goes off the rails, you end up with a series of shitty farm-to-table-to-your-American Express restaurants with beet salads, toast points, and pan-seared every thing over the United Benetton of Asparaguses. #MadColorsG. Even worse are those people with disjointed menus and no through-line that claim American-Born-Chinese like that guy who once served gochujang grilled cheese. Mah bad…
This week, I ate with Prodigy and Kenzo Digital. Although P’s favorite dish is Mongolian Beef at P.F. Chang’s, he loves Korean and his favorite restaurant all-time is Woo Lae Oak. Kenzo is the homie; you know him from Beyonce’s Billboad performance, City of God’s Son, and my favorite, "Super Ultra Karatay." I probably eat more with Kenzo than I do a fork.
First came an amuse-bouche of fried chicken and spicy mayo, perfectly fine, perfectly normal behavior to serve kara-age like chicken to start. The salmon wasabi cream dill with crunch went hard in the paint. The addition of wasabi had the same effect as wasabi flying fish roe has on Russ and Daughters’ Super Heeb, my favorite bagel sandwich. The waiter also came around with Earl Grey Raisin Bread that was en fuego. We’ve had green tea bread, we’ve had raisin bread, but flipping the script and bringing out a brioche with an Earl Grey nose was really ill. I know a lot of people have been doing Earl Grey gelato or macarons, but this shit shut it down. So far, every thing had a slight nod to East Asia, the waiters were East Asian, but what made this place with an imitation Eleven Madison Park menu Korean?
Next came the salad course and right on cue, P showed his apprehension toward molecular gastronomy: “I don’t know about that foam, dun.” He didn’t, but after tasting, he fucked with it. The best course was the second: “Rice.” P got the Miyeok, or “Birthday Meal,” which was rice cooked in a deep beef broth, and upon tasting exclaimed, “Shit’s bangin’, son.” I agreed, but Kenzo and I actually preferred the Sea urchin option which had the soul of stone bowl rice, but taken to another level and modernized by toasted nori, kim chi with the perfect mouth-feel, and the richness of sea urchin. It was better than any bi bim bap or donburi I’ve ever had. Clearly, Jung Sik is not in the business of battling Kun Jip, Village Yokocho, or BCD Tofu House, but if they wanted to, they would murk them. Since I went, Jung Sik has launched an $80 rice flight with 3 courses. It’s an experience you should enjoy if you have the means, simply because no one else is doing those items at that level right now.
After the rice course, things lost steam. I had the scallop with halibut and tofu, which was Brianna Love: bad bitch with no titties. Personally, I’m a huge Brianna Love fan, but I hated this scallop dish. For 5 courses at $125, every one of these joints needs to be some of the hardest shit I’ve had all year, if not in my lifetime. And don’t blame me if I’m upset, you set the cot damn price so you live up to it. The scallops and halibut were cooked well, but it had no personality, no snap, no titties. No one will eat it and say it tastes bad, but it for sure does not taste good. It was the missionary position of scallops. Shit just laid there waiting for someone to splash but it never came. #YouNastyBoyYouNasty.
For the next course, Kenzo got Five Senses Pork, P predictably got the chicken, and I got Galbi. Kenzo really didn’t like his pork. It was convoluted. Food nerds on Chowhound are scared to call this dish what it really is. Well-cooked pork belly with a phenomenal crust miscast in a muddy swamp of potato puree and greens. The hallmark of Korean meats is the interplay of savory and sweet. None of that happens here. You could call it whatever you want, but at the end of the day it was just salty and boring. I don’t care how much technique you have if it’s laid on a bed of cold, empty, flavors. Need that water mattress shit; welcome to my house party…
Galbi came, which was perfectly fine. Every thing you expect from galbi jim at Jung Sik: elegant, precise, smoothed out, and accented by fried rice cakes. All of us liked it, but we asked the question, is it better than the original? It doesn’t have to be authentic if it’s better, but if it’s not better, it better be cheaper. Isn’t that the rule? The problem with Jung Sik is the issue of what he’s promising versus what he’s delivering versus what he’s charging. Not a nan-nutter one of the three of us didn’t have the bread to spend in the joint. Shit, other tables sent us all champagne just to say wassup. We aren’t a bunch of broke ass yelpers looking for a refund, but no one wants to support something that promises, doesn’t deliver, yet still puts a check on the table like they just did the damn thing. If I whiskey dick a chick, I’m not rollin’ around talkin’ about how I just ripped that shit. I’m heading to the fucking shower while you text your homegirl, “I think MSG and Four Loko made his dick retarded.” I’ma yell at my joint, throw it against a wall, and hope it shows up for work in 15 minutes.
Jung Sik has all the surface characteristics of Korean food. Like Western medicine treating the symptoms as opposed to the problem. Missing is the fire of yook-gae jang, the body of Seolleongtang, and the aromatics of gamja tang dressed with ssukgat and ggannip. You don’t need to serve those dishes, just capture the essence, the story, the identity that is Korean. It’s disappointing that with all the possibilities and rich sources of inspiration in Korean food, Jung Sik is more content to draw its core from the Culinary Institute of America (where the chef went to school) and dress the same old culinary hero with a Korean face. People will defend it, saying I’m judging it from a lens wanting something more Roy Choi or Hooni Kim, but why not? There’s a heart to that food, a mission statement that they deliver on, and a price that anyone can access. Danji employs French techniques, but the identity of Korean food is left intact. I’m not the one that called Jung Sik a modern Korean restaurant—they did. If you wanted to be Eleven Madison Park, be Eleven Madison Park. But if you’re going to tell me this is Korean food, then I’m gonna call you a twinkie. Until next time, goodbye, stranger…