Raising the Bar: Mixing it Up at Bibim-Bar
Bibimbap (a spicy Korean mixed rice dish, also spelled bibimbop) isn't bar food, here or in Korea, but when you combine bibimbap and a sake bar, you get Bibim-Bar, a tiny bar/restaurant specializing in bibimbap and small Asian plates tucked away in the back of Ramen Setagaya on First Avenue.
Being Korean, bibimbap is one those dishes I hardly ever order at a restaurant. Along with kimchi jigae (kimchi stew) and denjang jigae (fermented soybean stew), it's easy to make at home with ingredients I usually have in my refrigerator. This weekend, though, I was by St. Marks and I needed Korean food stat, and after quickly surveying the area (Seoul Station is still closed for renovations), I found myself in Bibim-Bar.
Although Bibim-Bar is a sake bar, I knew I was going to be eating Korean food, so I ordered a glass of makgulli (also spelled makkoli), listed on the menu in English as Korean Rice Wine ($7). Makgulli is a rustic unfiltered rice wine formerly only popular with farmers. Recently, however, it's become trendy among the younger people in Korea, and as a result, makgulli bars have been sprouting up everywhere in Seoul. I always liked makgulli for its milky mouth-feel and slightly sweet aftertaste. At Bibim-Bar they serve E-Dong brand makgulli, which has apple and pear overtones. It's a natural match with anything spicy.
As expected, the bibimbap menu is pretty extensive at Bibim-Bar. There are around eleven varieties and all can be ordered in a regular bowl or in a hot stone bowl (called dolsot or gopdol). Usually I prefer bibimbap in a stone bowl because I like the crunchy rice that forms at the bottom, but that day it was strangely hot outside so I ordered a regular Nakji Bibimbop ($9.95), bibimbap with spicy octopus. The bibimbap had a good assortment of vegetables (spinach, Korean zucchini, aster scaber, mung bean sprouts, carrots), and the requisite fried egg on top, still runny in the middle. The octopus had a good amount of heat—keep this in mind before mixing in the gochujang (red chili paste) served on the side—but unfortunately, it was overcooked and rubbery. Next time, I think I'll opt for the Yook Hwe Bibimbap, bibimbap with raw beef. There's absolutely no chance of overcooking with that one.
I also tried the Homemade Chicken Basil Dumplings, ($3.25) which were surprisingly good considering it was not what I expected at all. The dumpling was more like a Chinese jiaozi with a thicker wrapper than a Korean mandoo, and ordered seared, the skin was chewy and delicious. In addition, the sharp basil was a nice twist that worked well with the juicy chicken filling.
I'll probably still make my bibimbap at home, but it's good to know when I'm feeling lazy and I can't even bear the twenty minute subway ride to K-Town, there is an option below 32nd Street at Bibim-Bar. Where else can you get bibimbap, makgulli, and chicken basil dumplings?
141 1st Avenue, New York NY 10003 (b/n St. Marks Place and 9th Street; map)
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