Dinner invariably starts with an audible gasp, a muffled squeal, and nervous giggles. You may have seen it on television—perhaps the Korean film, Oldboy, or the Outer Boroughs episode of No Reservations, featuring Anthony Bourdain and David Chang. On the small screen it was a flamboyantly audacious novelty. But if you're at Sik Gaek, located only 20 minutes outside of Manhattan, you're likely here for a reason. Sannakji, or young octopus—dispatched within minutes of consumption, with a cephalopodan nervous system too spirited to calmly accept its demise—arrives at the table still thrashing about. The facial expressions around the table say it all.
They helpfully chop the tentacles into manageable segments. Temporarily dispel the practicality that one shouldn't eat anything still moving and quickly pop a squirming tentacle into your mouth and chew with nervous vigor. The bite tastes of apprehension. On another try, the beast has fixated itself on a slice of raw garlic that lay next to it. This bite tastes of garlic. Finally pry forth a specimen with expectations set and gag reflex steadied—savor a wriggling arm and thoughtfully chew. This bite tastes of the clean open sea.
A few bites of raw octopus is only enough to whet the appetite, so the sannakji chulpan ($99.99) is the thing to order at Sik Gaek, and it's enough to feed an army. The kitchen sends out an epic pot of all manner of live sea creatures, plumbed from the briny deep and carefully arranged in a puddle of spicy brick red broth. I would do a disservice to the dish by trying to recite the extent of the constituent Crustacea and Mollusca, but the most notable include a mesmerizingly pulsating abalone, plump razor clams, and a majestic conch. There was a cantankerous lobster, who expressed its disapproval of the situation by wildly brandishing its impressive claws. Another nakji, this one kept intact, is draped over the mound of shellfish to keep the lobster company.
A gas flame is set to high, cooking commences, and at some point, you'll wonder how to attack the impenetrable conch shell, or how to fairly divvy up a lobster tail. Don't fret; Sik Gaek has you covered. Once your dinner has stopped moving, the staff will emerge with heavy duty shears and quickly disassemble the creatures into chopstick-manageable morsels. Dive in with a hearty grin, and don't forget to slurp the broth at the bottom of the pan—for now it's been finely wrought into the distilled essence of the ocean, spiked with a zing of gochujang.
There's an obvious downside to this cooking technique. With the various size, shape and protein structures of the marine co-conspirators, the level of doneness may not be optimal. A delicate cherrystone clam may cook well before that live abalone. A petite blue crab will be done in less than half the time than that precocious lobster. But unless you're dining at Le Bernardin, this is as exciting as seafood gets.
Like many great Korean one-pot meals, once you're nearly done with the main course, your waiter will come by and offer fried rice to end your meal. He'll leave a bit of the seafood broth in the pot, crank up the heat, and scoop spoonfuls of tobiko flecked rice into the now sizzling casserole. He'll ask if you'd care for a sprinkle of shredded cheese, and you should oblige. The result is gorgeously cooked and crispy rice that's heavily perfumed with shellfish essence, topped with opulent strands of gooey cheese. And for the naysayers that claim that cheese can't pair with seafood? This preparation might change your mind.
The less adventurous and seafood squeamish can still eat very well at Sik Gaek. There's expertly marinated galbi ($24.99), which is cooked over coals at your table, and results in a velvety and juicy short rib. The drunkard's delight, budae jjigae ($29.99)—a hillock of hotdogs, ramen noodles, spam, tofu, and rotini pasta swimming in a fiery red broth—is also served here. Each of the aforementioned pair perfectly with refreshing watermelon soju ($29.99), which is dispensed from a halved and hollowed watermelon rind.
Sik Gaek roughly translates to 'meal for guests', and there's an eagerness to show hospitality though enthusiastic service, generous portions, and a good deal of attention to quality. Behind the fear factor, hearty and humble food prevails. At Sik Gaek, dinner might begin with a nervous gasp and wide eyed apprehension, but it's destined to conclude with a murmur of satisfaction and a blissful smile.
Sik Gaek Flushing
161-29 Crocheron Ave, Flushing, NY 11358 (map) 718-321-7770