Danji: Modern Korean We Can Get Behind
346 West 52nd Street, New York NY 10019 (b/n 8th and 9th; map); 212-586-2880; danjinyc.com
Service: Cheery and swift
Setting: A good-looking slot of a restaurant whose minor design touches add interest to a sparse space
Must-Haves: Any 'sliders,' brisket stew, sablefish
Cost: $5-18 small plates; figure $20+/person for food
Grade: B+. Everything tasty, some dishes memorably so.
"Asian Fusion" and "small plates" were the "locally sourced" and "house-butchered" of a few years back—restaurant trends that turned into buzzwords that devolved into cliché. Not too long ago, in the era of SushiSamba, it felt like every new spot in the city wanted to show off its tapas-style dining, or Asian-inflected dishes, or both. So it's hard to shake a little doubt when we hear about a place like the new modern-Korean Danji, serving small plates of "Korean flavors prepared with classical French techniques."
So we'll spare you the skepticism and get straight to the point: The food you'll find at Danji ranges from good to fantastic.
The kitchen is run by chef Hooni Kim, who's put in time at both Daniel and Masa; his composed small plates emerge from the kitchen as they're ready, making for a meal best shared and best taken at the speed the restaurant sets for you.
It's a tight fit in this good-looking slot of a restaurant, but design details make it a good bit more comfortable than it otherwise might be: spoon-strung screens sectioning off spaces, short ceiling hangings absorbing the noise, menus always accessible in tiny drawers that slide out from the tables. The no-reservation policy and the close quarters may put off some. But if you're ready to taste and share and go along with the ongoing flow of the courses—and, yes, ready to spend a bit to do so—it's possible to have a memorably delicious meal.
At Danji, the best thing to drink is the house '50' Soju ($16/carafe), a blend of traditional sweet potato soju and a ginseng-infused rice soju. It's smooth and mineral-laced, with a delicate sweetness that complements pretty much every dish on the table. The cocktails we tried strayed toward too sugary; a vanilla-scented Asian pear cocktail ($12) was tasty if not complex, but we couldn't finish the Me-ron-a ($12), a melon soda, tequila, and honey-based concoction that, as served, was so sweet it might work as a substitute for dessert.
Danji's menu of small plates is divided into "traditional" and "modern" sections, and there are excellent options on either side. Of the former, the Miso Beef Brisket Stew with Organic Tofu ($7) is warm and hearty and the best deal on the menu; it's essentially a Korean jjigae—a thick soup cooked in a stone pot flavored with chili and miso. Silken tofu and tender shredded brisket offer nice texture. Equally meaty were the 'Danji' braised short ribs ($16). Galbijjim is traditionally made with the scraps of meat stuck to the bones after grilling short ribs. Braised with mushrooms, carrots, and potatoes, it's a cheap, filling, and comforting stew. Here they start with whole chunks of short rib, cooked until meltingly tender; though it's done very well, dollar for dollar, the brisket stew is a much better bet.
A Kimchi Trio ($5) of house-made fresh kimchi would be good for Korean neophytes: not too stinky, with bright flavor. (The best was the daikon.) Butternut Squash Congee with mochi ($5) may have you expecting a rice porridge; it's better described on the line beneath as hobak jook, a thick butternut squash porridge with chunks of chewy mochi (rice balls). Velvety, squashy, and delicious.
Some of the small plates tend toward the snackier, like the "KFC" Korean Fried Chicken Wings ($9). They come in a sweet garlic-soy sauce (on the traditional side), or a slightly spicy Thai chili sauce (on the modern). Both are good—moist, crisp, and not greasy—though the batter coating is pretty thick, not crackly-thin like other good Korean fried chicken. Also fried and tasty were the Rock Shrimp Tempura with Flying Fish Roe Mayo ($12). A riff on the popular spicy rock shrimp tempura popularized by Nobu, the shrimp is tender and well cooked, though the coating was a touch greasy. Mayo-based sauce shows that fat-on-fat works well when properly executed.
On principle, we're loathe to recommend any "sliders" other than the squishy beef-and-onion kind—just like we cringe when we see any vaguely Asian sandwich called a banh mi or any dip called an aioli. But we'll have to shut up and take it this time: the "sliders" are the best reason to come to Danji. Bulgogi filet mignon sliders ($14 for 2) have sweet and savory meat with spicy pickled cucumbers on a roll: soft top, cut sides grilled. Really excellent. The pork belly version ($12), with Korean chili-paste mayo and a pile of scallions, is almost better.
Pork belly fared better on a little bun than on a plate of grilled pork belly with kimchi and tofu ($13). Based on samgyeopsal, the popular homestyle dish of simply grilled pork belly, it comes cooked with kimchi and a pile of soft tofu on the side. We weren't quite sure what all the ingredients were doing together. Of the more substantial plates, by far the better was the poached sablefish with spicy daikon ($16). Another dish popularized by Nobu, broiled miso-glazed black cod is about as rich as fish can get; here, it's buttery and tender with a sweet, charred glaze. We really liked the texture of the disk of poached daikon, which was fully tender, but retained a nice crunch.
Korean barbecue without real coals always falls a bit flat, as we found with Danji's skirt steak, "Korean bbq style" ($14)—a well-marinated, well cooked, but still less-than-we-hoped-for skirt steak. Still, we preferred it to the lamb chops ($17), which were coated with a miso-based glaze that managed to overpower the meat. Skip both in favor of the Kimchi bacon fried 'paella' ($16, for 2). Somewhere at the intersection of fried rice, bibimbap, and paella, the perfectly fried rice with plenty of kimchi came served on a hot stone plate where it formed a crunchy brown crust. We recommend adding the sunny-side up egg.
The desserts are more adventurous than comforting; they come from Paris Baguette, and included a sweet potato cake with strong sweet potato flavor (it's hard to discern any other taste) for $6, and a slightly more traditional mocha cake for $7.
There are hits and misses along the way, and the menu doesn't necessarily communicate value as well as it could (we'd choose the $7 brisket stew over the $16 short rib, say). Still, that's a minor quibble with a menu whose modern dishes proved just as successful as their traditional ones. Plates such as "kimchi paella" and "bulgogi sliders" could easily have been all idea, no substance—but they turned out to rank among the best dishes we tried.
We may not shelve our fusion skepticism for good. But places like this remind us that no matter what the concept, it's the dishes that come out of the kitchen that count. And what comes out of the kitchen at Danji is very good indeed.