Hoyoung Kim’s tasting menu at Jua is often preceded by a three-inch-tall inky black column of inky darkness. The bottom part of the dish is covered with puffed seaweed that, due to its precise degree of crispiness, reminds me of a Pringles potato chip. The caviar is piled high in a thick black beehive, reminiscent of Marge Simpson’s hair in the Halloween episode in which she appeared as a witch.
The logical course of action is to pick up the item by the base and eat it like an ice cream cone, but the server has said that they are attempting to obtain all of the tastes in a single bite, which is difficult. Inside, starting from the bottom up, there’s a bed of truffled rice, followed by crunchy shards of pickled mountain yam and kimchi, and lastly a spoonful of chopped raw short rib, dripping with sesame oil, nestled just under the salmon roe.
Many of these establishments, such as Atomix, Kochi, Joomak Banjum, and Jua, operate on a fixed-price, multicourse model of service. I’m not sure when it will happen, but one of these days, someone I ask to dinner will reject me down by saying something that would have been inconceivable a decade ago: “No thanks, I had a Korean tasting menu the night before.”
Jung Sik Yim, a South Korean chef who founded the first Jungsik restaurant in Seoul in 2009 and followed it up with a second one in TriBeCa in 2011, is credited with virtually inventing this kind of restaurant. However, despite the fact that his nation has its own traditions of fine dining, Tossing out traditional serving dishes in favour of large porcelain plates and bowls, where sauces and ingredients were arranged as neatly as brushstrokes on a Kandinsky painting, for example, was a popular choice.
On time, Hand Hospitality started to specialise in cold, concrete-filled restaurants with menus that included innovative ideas for modernising Korean food as the company evolved. Of course, the line between a novel concept and a gimmick may be a delicate one to walk. LittleMad, a restaurant in which the group has a stake, will add truffles, caviar, or sea urchin to practically every meal for roughly $10, if you believe that a life without truffles is not a life worth living. At Kochi, a restaurant that is not linked with Hand Hospitality, every meal is impaled on a skewer, regardless of whether it is required.
Combining the ambient powers of Hand Hospitality’s dining rooms with the technical skills of Jungsik’s kitchen has resulted in some really extraordinary restaurants. To create Atoboy and Atomix, the company worked with Junghyun Park, a chef who had previously worked at Jungsik’s restaurants in New York and Seoul. Junghyun Park had previously worked at both locations. Moreover, in 2020, Hand Hospitality partnered with Mr. Kim, who had previously worked at Jungsik’s TriBeCa branch for eight years, to create Jua.
The first time I ate there, I got the distinct impression that I’d been transported away from the city for a few hours, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. The second time I visited, I was seated at the rear of the restaurant, closer to the kitchen, and I realised what she was talking about: the smoke from a wood-burning grill makes this restaurant near the Flatiron Building smell like a lodge in the Catskills.
On its own dish, the grilled duck breast is served with a variety of accompaniments, including a persimmon that has gone bad and a hot soy-glazed eggplant fritter that tastes like a Timbit from an impostor Tim Horton’s. Both of them are magnificent, as is the cured cucumber, which has a black filigree of char around the outside that is placed as delicately as lace around the neck of one of Rembrandt’s burghers.
It’s hard to remember the rest of the garnishes, in part because the waiters at Jua have a propensity of racing through their explanations of the meals like they were reciting the negative effects of a Cialis advertisement. A common occurrence at tasting-menu restaurants is that waiters do not learn to bring each dish to life with words in the same manner that they do when they are required to take clients through an à la carte menu. Another oddity of the tasting-menu style is that the more intricate the dish, the less you hear about it. It’s a strange paradox.
Dessert, on the other hand, is completely self-explanatory. The green-tea shaved ice that was offered throughout the summer gave way to a deceptively appetising dessert soup made with kabocha squash and served over brown-butter ice cream this autumn. Although the final course is always hotteok, it is not always available. The hotteok at Jua, on the other hand, are fluffy, golden, and crispy, and they are topped with candied almonds. In many ways, they are similar to beignets that are attempting to pass like sticky buns and nearly succeeding.