116 East 4th Street, New York NY 10003 (b/n 1st and 2nd Aves; map); 212-466-6660; monomononyc.com
Service: Friendly, if erratic
Setting: Lofty, stylized space that feels nothing like the East Village
Must-Haves: Mono+Mono Fries, mung bean pancakes
Cost: A meal will set you back $20+ before drinks
If stylish new Korean fried chicken joint Mono+Mono in the East Village were a bar, we'd be all about it.
It's a gorgeous space, with wooden beam walls, lofty ceilings, and a glass wall behind which sit thousands of vinyl records. The soundtrack of jazz music, selected from these records by a DJ who sits perched above the dining room, is adult and low-key, audible but low-pitched enough to let you hear your companions. Said records slowly rotate overhead, to a pleasantly mesmerizing effect. And the best things we tried were the drinks and the fries.
So, in theory, we'd happily stop in for a whiskey and a bite. It's a shame, then, that they didn't have a full liquor license—and that the food wasn't taken as seriously as the space. Much of the menu would have been right at home at a place like SushiSamba: overwrought sushi rolls, decent seafood marred by sweet sauces; fruity drinks, staggering prices. Not bad, per se—nothing a person would send back or actively dislike. But not anything you'd recommend to a friend. And not anything you'd pay north of five dollars for.
Check out Mono+Mono's promo video, where the vast majority of the one-minute long segment is devoted to flashy images of what is presumably "Chef Steve" flipping spatulas and forks in the air, setting fire to a griddle, and tossing salt shakers behind his back Benihana-style. It's a good indication of what to expect from the menu and restaurant: a lot of flash and style, very little attention paid to the actual food. There's nothing wrong with flash and style. But at Serious Eats, we want the food to measure up.
This is a space made for drinking in, which is why it's so surprising that Mono+Mono only has a wine and beer license. Their entire cocktail section is made up of soju-based drinks, and actually do a fantastic job of making the Korean rice wine cocktails unique and really drinkable. The coconut "mojito" and white yogurt martini are the most interesting of the bunch—the former, not too sweet or sunscreen-tasting; the latter, like sweet-tart frozen yogurt in cocktail form. It's almost enough to make a person go back, but at $8 to $10, they didn't quite justify their prices. And neither did a beer selection of $8 Sixpoint Brownstone pints and $7 bottles of Victory Prima Pils, when you can get $8 pours of cask ale from d.b.a. around the corner.
Despite significantly different descriptions on the menu, the salads were all pretty similar in the flavoring. The most interesting part of the Lobster Watercress Salad ($14.95) was the spicy watercress in a refreshing soy-yuzu dressing. Though pretty, the lobster itself came sliced into a couple of thin-yet-rubbery disks completely devoid of flavor. Also, note to menu writers: referring to shredded artificial surimi as "crabmeat" on the menu is more than a bit deceptive.
For cold appetizers, you're much better off with the Salmon Yuzu Salad ($11.95). You lose the watercress, instead getting some crunchy iceberg, but the upgrade from rubbery lobster to silky, smokey, fatty salmon belly makes it a wise trade. The fried softshell crab ($12.95) is also a decent option. It's expertly fried and a fine deal, if you don't mind the texture of frozen crabs.
Like the cold appetizers, hot were a hit or miss affair, oftentimes within a single dish. Perfectly grilled sweet sea scallops ($15.95) were served with mushy, sub-par sea urchin and a sticky "seafood sauce" that tasted of cheap soy. At $16 for four small scallops, they weren't cheap, either. We had no complaints about the Pan Fried Tofu ($4.95), but were a little puzzled by its simplicity in a menu that's otherwise complex (in description, if not in execution).
Speaking of befuddling menu items, what in the world is Mexican Corn ($3.95 for one piece, $7 for two) doing here? Theirs was serviceable and well cooked, but not stand-out, aside from its odd cultural juxtaposition with the rest of the menu.
Mung Bean Pancakes ($4.95 each or $8.95 for two) get their own special section of the menu, and deservedly so. They are significantly better than most other options. Made from freshly ground green mung beans, they were as crisp and flavorful as you could hope for. A few extra bucks will get you your choice of mix-in. Kimchi ($2) is a classic option, and even better when you squeeze on some of the extra kimchi base they offer in a squeeze bottle.
Our favorite appetizer of the night was the Mono+Mono Fries ($8.95). Thick, crisp skin-on wedges of potato with fluffy interiors and adequately salted exteriors, they came served with your choice of three sauces. Plain ketchup, a spicy mayonnaise, and a bacon-flavored that was surprisingly tasty. The bacon was very subtle, adding a light smokiness that didn't overwhelm the potato. But again—$9 for a small handful of fries is crazy expensive, even in this trendy space.
We'd also ordered the Mono+Mono Calamari ($10.95), but after we'd cleared our appetizers and the main courses started arriving, there was still no word on it—other than a brief explanation from the very friendly server that "the calamari seems to be taking a long time tonight."
There's an entire menu section devoted to rolled sushi, but the chefs at Mono+Mono approach the delicate art of maki with the subtlety of pro wrestlers. Caviar Salmon ($13.95) combines a host of elements that sound flavorful—"spicy salmon tempura with red radish, caviar, shitake, and mushroom sauce"—yet ends up tasting of nothing. So much so that after tasting it, we had difficulty identifying which menu item it was.
Similarly, the Black Dragon Roll ($15.95) combined smoked eel, avocado, crab, cucumber, and two different sauces in a way that managed to taste simultaneously of too much, and of nothing at all. We would have much preferred simpler options with better ingredients.
And what of the signature Korean Fried Chicken ($16.95 for a medium, $21.95 for a large)? It's good, not great. Ultra-crisp with well-rendered skin, it's grease-free and juicy. The crust was bordering on too thick (Korean fried chicken should have a shatteringly crisp, thinner crust, like that at Bonchon in Midtown), but our real complaint is with the sauce. The "hot & spicy" is not hot, but definitely the better of the two options. The soy garlic tastes not of garlic, but only of cheap, sweet, thickened soy sauce.
And like everything else, it's extraordinarily expensive for what you get. At $17, you're paying nearly $2 per chicken wing, about twice as much as other Korean fried chicken joints in the city. Make no mistake: you're paying for the atmosphere.
Well after our fried chicken arrived (the menu warns that the chicken takes at least 30 minutes on the menu), we finally got our calamari—10 minutes after the last dishes were cleared, and well over an hour after we'd ordered it. To his credit, the server was very polite about the whole affair, apologized for the lateness, and even brought us a round of soju on the house. It was a good move, as the calamari was certainly not worth the wait. It was rubbery with a powdery, bread-like crust that tasted primarily of powdered parmesan.
View more dishes in the slideshow above »
The real problem with Mono+Mono: we just couldn't find anything to justify going back for a return visit. A spacious East Village spot is a rare thing indeed—and if the prices came down across the board, we might well stop back in with a group for a round of drinks, some fries, a few mung bean pancakes. But as it is? We just can't recommend the place, nice as those jazz tunes are.