Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
Gaonnuri, a new high-end Korean restaurant in Manhattan's Koreatown, seeks to answer several questions that I've heard again and again in many shapes and forms. "Where can one dine with a grand city view"; "how about a good joint for Korean barbecue in Manhattan"; and "what's a decent place for a large gathering of friends or co-workers?" Its lofty perch on the 39th floor of 1250 Broadway provides a stunning view of the city, and the expansive dining room seats 250 diners with areas that can be sectioned off for private parties. And they do Korean barbecue, complete with down draft vacuums to evacuate smoke before it permeates the customers.
Gaonnuri is what happens when determination meets opportunity. Its owner, Andy Sung, discovered the unused top floor of 1250 Broadway almost ten years ago, where he had been contracted as a developer and architect. It's taken him since then to get his name on the lease, redevelop the space (a multi-year, multi-million dollar project), and launch the restaurant. The menu alone took nearly a year to develop.
But a decade of hand wringing and red tape may have been a blessing in disguise for this restaurant. "Now is the time", acknowledged Mr. Sung, "ten years ago customers wouldn't be ready for us, but now it's the right time."
The new wave of high-end, trailblazing Korean restaurants such as Jung Sik and Danji have, in some part, made Gaonnuri a feasible enterprise. Two New York Times Stars for the former, a Michelin star for the latter, and now an upscale Korean restaurant with the Rainbow Room's swagger.
However, Gaonnuri's menu isn't jockeying for space with the new wave of high-end Korean restaurants. In fact, the eclectic selection of Korean pancakes, hearty stews, and meats grilled at your table may remind you of other ground floor K-town staples with an extra $5-10 tacked on to each menu item. Entrees cost $15 and between $15 and $20 at dinner. Barbecue hovers around $30. The food attempts authenticity and reveres tradition, although French techniques are used where appropriate; much of the kitchen is classically trained.
Gaonnuri tells us that they differentiate themselves from the rest of 32nd street through the quality of their ingredients. The menu embraces seasonality. Dwenjang (fermented bean paste) is single-sourced from a kitchen on Long Island, and sanchae (mountain vegetables) are from Gangwan, a region of Korea known for such. They claim to be MSG-free, and instead, the salt used in the restaurant is from the Sinan area of Korea, a chain of islands nestled on the Yellow Sea known for their exceptional quality sea salt.
The restaurant offers a stunning high-rise view of the city, and the tables are topped with artisan spun linens. The bar is backed by tremendous clay vases and pretty paper chandeliers illuminate the foyer. All arts and crafts hail from Korea, and were customized for Gaonnuri.
Taking in the scene, Mr. Sung shared his philosophy on restaurant success: there must be great food and great service to go along with a great looking restaurant. Those three factors when done well, he believes, will result in a great restaurant.