Gaonnuri's Korean Fare Doesn't Reach The Heights Of Its Digs
1250 Broadway, Penthouse, 39th fl., New York, NY 10001 (at 32nd Street; map); gaonnurinyc.com
Service: Excellent and accommodating in the restaurant. Somewhat clueless at the bar.
Setting: Stunning views of midtown Manhattan. Spacious tables. Soft music.
Must-Haves: Marinated Galbi, Chadolbaeki, Duck Breast, Mul Naeng Myeon
Cost:Appetizers $12 to $25, mains $16 to $34
Grade: For barbecue and setting, A-; for other food and service, C
A handsome bar and pretty hostess meets you when the doors open on the 39th floor. If there's one thing you can say about it, Gaonnuri sure is a looker. I'm not used to being treated this nicely at a Korean restaurant I think to myself as the hostess asks us if we'd like to proceed straight to our table, or perhaps enjoy a drink at the bar first.
A long-term, multi-million dollar project, Gaonnuri's goal is to elevate the Korean food of Manhattan—figuratively and quite literally—serving spruced up, high-end renditions of all of the Korean classics in a spacious and modern dining room that floats high above midtown, the Empire State Building so close you can almost make out the staplers on the office desks. It's the Korean version of the Rainbow Room, and every bit as classy.
It's a beautiful, elegant, and altogether adult space, to be sure. The kind of place you can take your in-laws or picky out-of-town guests unused to the normal clamor and bustle of a Manhattan restaurant.
Speaking of Manhattans, I soon wished that I'd asked to be seated straight away. Perhaps authentic Korean Manhattan cocktails consist of shaken Jack Daniels poured directly into a martini glass—no vermouth, no bitters, not even a day-glo red maraschino cherry—but I somehow doubt it.
It's an inauspicious beginning to a meal that takes a while before it finds its stride.
Disclaimer for those who don't like suspense: I'm about to say some not very kind things about some of the food here. But rest assured, things do get better eventually. The focus on aesthetic over content that shows in the bar applies just as much to the food.
Smartly dressed waiters tap in your orders on iPads before returning with a small dish of banchan. This is the first sign that you're not in an average Korean restaurant. Rather than the parade of dozens of pickles and salads, you're handed a small plate of four, which vary from broccoli strewn with imitation crab (inedible) to chewy and spicy dehyrdated squid in chili sauce (delightful). Depending on the luck of the draw, these keep you either occupied or annoyed until the appetizers start to arrive.
Yukhoe ($14/$26), a Korean take on beef tartare, is thin slices of beef seasoned with sesame oil and soy, traditionally brought to your table as separate elements—seasoned ice cold beef, a raw egg yolk, chunks of sweet, crisp asian pear—and tossed in front of you, creating a mix that is balanced with each bite. Gaonnuri's sterile version comes with a lonely ball of beef and a pile of pear, separated like boys and girls at a high school gymnasium dance on opposite sides of a square plate. Coax them together and a bit of chemistry takes place, but nobody is there to explain this alchemy to us.
A quartet of miniature Korean Pancakes ($10/16) should be moved into the "Cold Dishes" section of the menu, as they were not hot by any standards when they arrived, reminding me of stale old corn tortillas, but with a bit less flavor. A rather tasty sweet and savory dipping sauce arrived at our table several minutes too late—we'd already given up.
Fortunately, the lowest points come early in the meal, and things take a sharp upturn as soon as the first hot meat starts to arrive. The steamed pork belly Bossam ($14/26) is fine, but the real star of the plate is the fresh kimchi. Mildly spicy, not too sour, but heady with the mint-like aroma of Korean perilla leaf.
Thin and slick, chilled Mul Naeng Myeon ($18) are a refreshing bowl of sweet potato-based noodles in a chili-beef broth with pear, cucumber, and not-too-tender slices of steamed beef brisket. It's the dish that you wish that beef tartare could have been.
As is common with Asian restaurants that try to span too many cooking styles, some sections inevitably suffer. None of the four soups and stews I tasted—Galbi Tang ($18), Kimchi Jjigae ($15), Dduk Mandoo Guk ($15) or Black Cod Jorim ($25)—were compelling, their flavors one dimensional, their ingredients muddled and muted.
Similarly, their Bibimbap may be made from the finest seasonal Korean vegetables, and the bowl appears pretty enough, but mix them all together and you're left wondering where all the flavor went. A bowl my wife and I ordered from Han Joo on St. Mark's the night afterwards was ten times as flavorful at half the price.
Indeed, it reminded me a lot of the one "fancy" restaurant experience I had in Seoul: a very toned down, cleaned up, and altogether less exciting version of the inexpensive Korean food that can be found all around it.
So then what is the good news here? The barbecue. The tableside grilled meats are of the highest quality. I dug into prime-grade short rib Galbi ($34) breathlessly, completely forgetting about the lettuce and sauces meant to accompany it, its sweet marinated crust still sizzling from the heat of the grill. It comes not in thin slices or flanken-cut slabs, but as large chunks, expertly scored to increase tenderness, riddled with unctuous fat that melts across your tongue in a sweet wash as you bite in.
Lean Duck Breast ($28) is served thin-sliced and ice cold, needing just a quick kiss from the tabletop grill to give it some color, its fatty skin lubricating the lean, medium-rare meat underneath. I dipped it pork-style into sesame oil flavored with black pepper and Korean salt harvested from the Yellow sea.
And what's that arriving? Did we order bacon? Ah—that would be Chadolbaeki ($28). Beef brisket supremely marbled with creamy fat and sliced into slender curls that sputter and pop on the griddle. Pro-tip: do NOT overcook the brisket. That fat disappears as quickly as the smoke that's carried down under your table and whisked away.
While I lament the fact that there are no live coal fires under our tables, the quality of the meat surpasses that of any I've had in Manhattan, and gives Mapo BBQ out in Flushing a run for its money.
Sitting back with the lingering aroma of charred meat wafting through the air and sampling their excellent housemade ice creams, it's enough to almost forgive Gaonnuri its earlier trespasses.
Want to know how to make the most of Gaonnuri? Come for lunch, where a prix fixe menu between $20 and $28 will get you the exact same barbecue and side dishes. The view comes free.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.