Hanjan: Hooni Kim's Sophomore Effort Establishes Him as NY King of Korean
36 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10010 (b/n Broadway and 6th Avenue; map); 212-206-7226; hanjan26.com
Service: A little slow, but food comes fast and questions get answered (after some prodding).
Setting: Small but comfortable, like a Japanese Izakaya. You will get to know your neighbors.
Compare To: Danji, Takashi, and Red Farm.
Must-Haves: Spicy Cod Roe Stew, Scallion Pancake with Squid, Pork Fat Ddukbokki, Fresh Killed Chicken Skin, and Heart Skewers.
Cost: Skewers are $6 to $10 for two. Small plates are $10 to $22. Expect to order a couple small plates and a skewer or two per person for a meal.
Recommendation: Some of the best Korean food you'll find in Manhattan if you're willing to get out of your comfort zone. And pay for it.
Chef Hooni Kim quckly made a name for himself (and a place in the New York dining lexicon for Bulgogi Sliders) with Danji, his slim, swanky, difficult-to-get-into-but-oh-so-delicious Korean fusion small-plates restaurant in midtown. Hanjan, his new "Korean izakaya,"—an establishment meant for equal parts drinking and dining—does more than live up to that legacy. It sails over it, planting Kim firmly in place as the leader in modern Korean cookery in New York.
He'd get there on the merits of his Freshly Killed Chicken Skin Skewers ($6 for two) alone, a favorite snack in Japanese-style Yakitori restaurants. Kim's version crackles off of its bamboo holder, as crisp and grease-free as the best fried chicken but kissed by the subtle smoky char of the grill. It's the best chicken skin skewer I've had anywhere, made all the better by the dollop of intensely fermented housemade ssam-jang that makes you rethink everything you knew about the sweet-and-spicy Korean condiment. It's like having freshly squeezeed orange juice after a lifetime of concentrate.
If you're the kind of diner who hoards their food, crouching over your Pork Fat Ddukbokki ($12) like it was the One True Ring, you'll want to come in early to grab one of the two- or four-tops that line the two sides of the narrow space. You'll find no such protection at the communal table that takes up the center aisle, where you'll more likely have to politely ask your neighbor to take their elbow out of your seasonal housemade Kimchi Duo ($5).
You might want to offer him a sip of your Yuja Bellini ($13) while you're at it; its sweet-tart balance of gin, bitters, and Korean citrus with a float of crémant may just convince him to offer you a taste of his Hanjan Old Fashioned ($13) in return. If all goes well, you may even go in together on a bottle of their House Soju ($18), served with those tiny glass Korean cups that make you feel very generous as you refill each others' drinks after each sip.
Those ddukbokki are stellar by the way. They're totally traditional in appearance and flavor, with the mild heat of Korean kochukaru ground chili balanced with sweet fermented bean paste and sugar. The dense rice sticks put on a great performance on their own—the whisps of tender pork fat that melt through them are the surprise guest star that everyone talks about after the show is over.
Familiar Korean classics that are better-than-you-remember are par for the course here. Try this: Imagine the best haemul pajeon you can, then imagine taking that flat Korean scallion pancake and exploding it into the third dimension, rising above its cast iron plate craggly and crisp, the lacy pancake batter barely managing to contain crisp shoots of fresh scallion and local squid as tender as you can hope for. That's what the Scallion Pancake with Local Squid ($12) is like, but with a delicious dipping sauce to boot.
It's very rare to come across a Korean restaurant that manages to hit all the right notes—just like in Japan, Korean restaurants tend to be highly specialized. You wouldn't go to a barbecue restaurant to get soup just as you wouldn't order fried chicken at a tofu shop. If there is a single department that Hanjan occasionally stumbles on, it's the fried dishes. That's unfortunate, because one night I sat and watched as every single table ordered the Gwangju Market Fried Chicken ($12), tender marinated pieces of dark meat chicken that are juicy enough but come in a clumsily thick layer of starchy breading with flavor that seems positively bland when it stands next to the rest of the food here. The fried Perilla Jeon with Shrimp and Pork ($10) are similarly unimpressive.
I wanted to shake them to their senses and demand: Did you not see the Braised Pig Trotters with Fermented Shrimp Sauce ($20) right underneath them on the menu?!
It's too bad you didn't, or you'd be sitting here right now pressing thin slivers of cabbage and scallions into the dollop of salty fermented shrimp paste you've spooned onto your slice of braised pork trotter, folding it up taco style, the previous bite still melting slowly across your tongue, its mild spicing and sweet-and-savory flavors nearly distracting you from the important job at hand.
Or for a different experience that'll lead you to equally juice-slicked fingers, you could be sucking the meat off of a Fresh Killed Chicken Wing ($12), confit-tender under its crisp grilled skin flavored with soy and sake, served with a side of sweet-and-fresh daikon and chili pickles.
Not in a finger-licking mood? Spicy Cod Roe Stew ($22) with its so-intense-it's-almost-sticky broth might be a better choice for you. A rich fish broth forms the base for a slowly-constructed tower of flavors as layers of heat, ocean, vegetal bitterness, and sweet fermented funk quietly build up on your palate, reaching new heights with each shallow spoonful. Even without its signature ingredient—generous portions of tender, grainy cod roe contrasted with mild silken tofu—the broth alone is worth the price of admission for this bowl big enough to feed two.
And this is all before we even get to the skewers. Dominating that side of the menu are the chicken options ($6 each) with every part from breast and that amazing skin to gizzard, thigh, and heart. The latter is the one to get, nearly beef-like in its rich texture, but with a lighter, more subtle flavor. My vegetarian wife was evenly duly impressed with the Royal Trumpet Mushrooms and Scallion Skewers ($6), which is good news for her, as the only other item on the menu she could fully take part in was their Winter Lettuce Salad ($10), which was bright, crisp, and bitter with chunks of persimmon in a sweet vinaigrette.
By the way, those frosty mugs of creamy white liquid you see the waitress passing off at every table? That is something you do want to order: Makgeolli ($9), an unfiltered, lightly effervescent style of rice beer that used to be the exclusive domain of Korean farmers, but has found new love among the young Korean and Japanese hipster population. The PBR of East Asia. It goes down easy and is custom made for this style of bar-friendly plates.
Those used to the generous slices of meat that get served at the Korean barbecue houses in the neighborhood might be unimpressed with the diminutive BBQ Galbi Skewers ($10) that come with no more than an ounce or two of meat, but what they miss in size they make up in unparalleled richness and tender texture. Wrapped in their lettuce leaves with a swipe of that amazing ssam-jang, they are positively transporting. They might be the priciest-per-ounce galbi you've ever had, but they might also be the best.
It takes something a bit simpler, homier, and more filling like the Radish Kimchi and Brisket Fried Rice ($16) to bring you back down to earth, its familiar flavors not particularly exciting or novel, but comforting and faultless. You'll want to mix the soft-fried egg yolk with the crisp crust of rice you scrape up from the sizzling cast iron plate as you go along.
There can be a degree of sticker shock when the bill arrives. $35+ per head before drinks may seem a bit pricey when you consider that you can make a bigger meal out of some of the banchan that come out to the table for free at traditional Korean establishments just a few blocks away, but it's hard to complain when the food is just so damn good. Judging by how full the place was by the time we left, it seems that other folks agree.
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.