Kristalbelli, Showy Korean BBQ Without Smoke or Soul
For diners that have experienced Korean barbecue, certain expectations arise. One should assume that you'll leave the restaurant reeking of meat and smoke, and if you're in Manhattan's K-town, you'll pay around $25 for galbi (short rib) and slightly less for pork. The drink menu will typically consist of beer and soju only, and your waiter won't volunteer service unless specifically addressed.
Such is not the case at Kristalbelli, a Korean barbecue restaurant, the latest production by legendary South Korean singer, songwriter, actor, and producer, Park Jin Young (aka JYP). Instead at Kristalbelli, one should expect extraordinarily polished and attentive service, and an eye-popping bill best suited for impressing a date or an expense account dinner. There's an affordable but safe wine list, and a bespoke cocktail menu that tends to come in two flavors: sweet and sweeter. And thanks to vacuums hidden underneath each grill, you'll leave the restaurant blessedly odor free.
Kristalbelli is Korean barbecue that has been elevated to theater, with a nod to Mr. Park's penchant for flamboyance and flair. The meat is grilled on a crystal surface, heated by underneath by a powerful gas flame (Han Joo in Flushing employs the same technique). Crystal (I believe quartz or one of its SiO2 poly-morphs) is a viable medium for cooking meat—the molecular structure makes it thermally stable, which means that heat is better distributed and normalized throughout. But it's also visually striking, especially when it's framed by a stylized golden relief of Buddha and set in center of a massive marble table.
However, for all of the restaurant's proposed swagger, the dining room is surprisingly sterile and bereft of decoration or chintz. Bricks walls cloaked in white paint combined with naked Edison light bulbs recall a turn of the century hospital.
While the design of the dining room may not match its ambitions, Kristalbelli shines when it comes to attention to detail and the service. Single servings of wine are poured table-side from carafes and the complimentary banchan (side dishes) are not only of excellent quality, but are re-filled without prompting. Upstairs at the bar, we noticed the bartender macerating fruit to order, and the manager checked in (a little too) frequently to ensure that we were being taken care of. Outside of the restrooms, one can watch and listen to K-pop music videos at A/V pods presumably to pass the time while waiting for the restroom (or one could use it to escape from a bad date). Inside the restrooms, the paper products are ridiculously supple and soft ("it was like getting wiped down by an angel," I over-shared with my dining companions).
I never order filet mignon when dining out, favoring fattier and more flavorful cuts such as the ribeye or skirt steak. However, a dish so audaciously priced must be sampled for research, and at $55 (as a caveat it's listed as $51 on the online menu), the 'premium wagyu filet' represents one of the more expensive cuts of meat one can order in New York. In fact, one of the only other filets that come close in terms of price is the $49 12 oz filet at Keen's, just down the way on 36th St. But whereas Keens' filet is dry aged and seasoned, the steak served at Kristalbelli isn't aged (other than the standard wet age that all steaks are subject to) and served completely unseasoned.
But how was it? In short: un-compelling. Indeed, it was intensely beefy and juicy at times. But without any seasoning, you get a completely sterile, pedestrian bite of beef.
We had significant issues with doneness, as this method of cooking has obvious drawbacks. Namely, when the meat is cut into bite sized pieces, it exaggerates the heat of the grill, as there's no longer a buffer zone that you would get with a thicker cut of meat. The meat goes from rare to well done far faster than the pace that a diner can pluck it off the grill, especially at a relaxed enough pace to truly enjoy a $55 piece of meat. The lack of fat in a filet only presents another challenge to keep the meat juicy. To give credit to our waiter, he did an excellent job of controlling the doneness given the circumstances, but this is simply not an optimal way to cook such a dear cut of meat.
As an aside, a dining companion rightly pointed out that one of the most exciting elements of a filet mignon isn't the meat itself. Instead, it's the anticipation and build-up of cutting into a brown hockey puck of meat and revealing a thick, beautifully pink interior (Freud would have a field day with this analysis). Unfortunately, Kristalbelli pops that cherry instead of the customer.
The galbi ($31) is a significantly more successful beef option. Impressively marbled, and much beefier than the filet, it comes off of the grill with a satisfying juiciness. I didn't get a weepy good reaction that I've experienced with marinated galbi in the past, but Kristalbelli's galbi very nearly impresses with its solo act. Both the galbi and the filet are served with fairly standard condiments, including trio of dipping sauces—ssamjang (slightly spicy fermented bean paste), a sweet brown sauce that recalls tonkatsu sauce, and a mild mustard sauce—and a small well of sea salt and paper-thin sheets of pickled radish.
At $28, the samgyeopsal (pork belly) represents the best value on the grilled meat menu. Three generously thick strips of un-marinated pork belly get the same crystal grill treatment, and are served with salted sesame oil and saeujeot (tiny shrimp that have been salted and fermented). Compared to other Korean restaurants both in Manhattan and even Flushing, the pork belly here stood out in its meatiness and appropriate level of fattiness.
But as much as we enjoyed the galbi and the samgyeopsal, I wished that the waiter could tell me the provenance of the proteins, especially at these prices. Did Pat LaFrieda have a hand in the $31 serving of short rib? Or did that $28 samgyeopsal come from one of Bev Eggleston's hogs? And for that matter, what does "Premium Wagyu" actually mean? "Premium" certainly doesn't seem to part of the standard terminology as per the USDA grading system.
Upstairs there's a lounge that glows garishly purple and has comfortable banquette seating in gold and silver hues. But for all of its visual kitsch, I would probably return for a drink or two, especially with the lack of other watering holes in this immediate block. Beer, soju and sake are on par with New York prices ($7 for draft beers) and the cocktails, while on the sweet side, are made with care and tongue-in-cheek combinations (a JY Plum anyone?). And like the downstairs dining room, the bartender and waiters are ridiculously attentive and polite.
However, in the lounge, the food takes a turn for the worse. Milsam ($9) are dainty wraps of vegetable and beef with a robe of pickled radish. Unfortunately the radish dominates each bite, and you'll taste nothing but. Kochi ($13), skewered pork belly, shrimp and asparagus, was the worst offender of the experience. The pork had been grilled completely without salt and was frustratingly tough. The shrimp was cooked to rubbery bullets, and the asparagus wilted into slime. We fought to remove the tough proteins from their skewers, but did so a the risk of knocking over a drink or putting out an eye. Most damningly, the simple bed of arugula, which had been tossed with sesame oil and soy sauce, was easily the best bite of food on that plate.
In the spicy pork sliders ($10), I had hoped for a similar effect like that of Danji's dreamy good pork belly sliders. Here, bitty lumps of pork never get a chance before they're smacked around by way too much gochujang (red pepper paste). The buns look like they've been through a war.
If food is the new rock, then to draw a parallel, Kristalbelli is a new K-pop act. K-pop groups, such as ones produced by Mr. Park, tend to be projects rather than artists (don't get me wrong, I love the stuff—an embarrassingly large K-pop collection on my iPod is proof). Members are handpicked, go through years of training (and sometimes surgery) to achieve perfect choreography and physique, and their debuts are precluded by massive PR campaigns. Similarly, in the attempt to create the perfect Korean BBQ restaurant, nothing was left to chance, discovery, or evolution. It's a highly disciplined, beautified restaurant that may have removed smoke from the experience, but perhaps lost its soul along the way.