Korean food may be the hottest Asian cuisine in the United States right now, but it's an evolution that's only happened over the past decade. New York has become the epicentre of modern Korean restaurants as young chefs experiment beyond Korean BBQ to showcase more expansive and creative interpretations of Korean cuisine.
It's rare to find a tasting menu in New York for less than $100 so a restaurant of Jua's calibre at this price point is the kind of gem that locals keep close to the vest. The first course of glistening uni may appear to be a simple uni nigiri, but looks can be deceiving. The crispy seaweed chip hides pickled cucumber and tuna rice within, and this bright, flavoursome bite sets the tone for an unforgettable evening.
Chef Hoyoung Kim was the executive chef at Jungsik before opening Jua, where he specialises in wood-fired cooking inspired by Korean flavors. Squid ink sotbap is essentially Korean paella – the rice is cooked in smoked anchovy broth and tossed with kimchi and squid with plump diver scallops on top. You can add langoustines and abalone if you're feeling extra. There might be incredibly juicy sasso chicken, served with a dollop of cumin aioli and soy pickles or sea bream crudo delicately dressed with kombu, yuja and wild blueberries. The six-course menu changes regularly, so there's always something new to discover.
Like Jua, Kochi opened in November 2019 with a very reasonably priced tasting menu – seven courses for $75. Chef Sungchul Shim structures his menu after banquet meals served at the royal court during the Joseon dynasty, but incorporates modern Japanese and French techniques, reflecting his experience cooking at Le Bernardin, Bouley and Per Se. Dinner begins with a vibrant seasonal soup followed by mul-hwe sashimi with tiger's milk sauce. There are opportunities for luxe supplements – osetra caviar, A5 wagyu, abalone and sea urchin – along the way.
Shim's specialty are skewers grilled over binchotan charcoal like shrimp jeon pancakes with fermented chili oil and glazed vinegar cured mackerel. Even dessert continues along the skewer theme with black sesame ice pops served on a stick. Portions here are generous and cocktails are especially intriguing, along with non-alcoholic mocktails and rare South Korean teas.
This modern Korean steakhouse elevates the Korean BBQ concept to new heights. Cuts of USDA prime and American wagyu beef are presented raw at the table, but instead of leaving you to your own devices, a server greases the grill with beef fat and cooks and seasons each piece of meat for you, ensuring each bite is cooked to perfection. The butcher's feast is an excellent choice for first-timers, including four different cuts of meat served with accompaniments of pickled vegetables, spicy kimchi stew, scallion salad with gochujang vinaigrette and a savoury egg soufflé. Save the red leaf lettuce and ssam-jang to make lettuce wraps with Cote's specially marinated galbi shortrib.
Ordinarily, you might have a beer or soju with bulgogi and galbi, but at Cote you're best off pairing your meal with wine curated by beverage director Victoria James. All glass pours are served by the magnum to keep wine fresher for longer. Conclude your evening with a shot of Underberg to aid digestion followed by a creamy cloud of vanilla soft serve topped with soy caramel.
If your concept of Korean food is relegated to Korean BBQ and fried chicken, the gentle elegance of HanGawi's vegetarian cuisine will surprise you. This stalwart Koreantown staple has been open for more than 25 years and dining here feels like entering a traditional Korean home. You'll take off your shoes at the door and sit tatami-style on the cushioned floor. Heated floors warm your feet while sizzling stone rice bowls and nourishing soups and porridges warm the stomach, making this an ideal cosy date night choice on a chilly winter evening. Mushrooms, tofu and todok (a mountain root native to Korea) feature prominently on the extensive menu, and there are many spicy and milder dishes suitable for every palate.
Begin with sesame leaf tofu patties and combination pancakes or dumplings to whet the appetite and try a sampling of flavours before moving onto more substantial dishes like organic buckwheat zen noodles with a medley of vegetables, chili mushrooms or spicy tofu clay pot in ginger stew.
The restaurant that's done the most to propel current appreciation and acceptance of Korean food among sophisticated diners in the United States is undoubtedly Jungsik in Tribeca. Jungsik defined a more upscale approach to Korean cuisine when the restaurant opened in 2011 and has garnered two Michelin stars every year since 2014. The menu is displayed in both English and Korean and there is overlap with Jungsik's eponymous sister restaurant in Seoul with signature dishes like tuna kimbap and braised octopus with gochujang aioli.
Décor and service is very much in line with what you'd expect at a European fine dining restaurant, but the kitchen is full of Korean cooks. The meal starts with a parade of banchan bite-sized appetisers like fried oysters coated in squid ink bread crumb and a steamed bun filled with tomato, basil and prosciutto that illustrate the restaurant's East meets West philosophy.
Ramyun is typically thought of as a convenience food in Korean culture, but Jeju Noodle Bar defies the lowbrow stereotype of instant noodles with their pristine ingredients, artful presentations and rich milky broths, all served in a casual and comfortable setting. This is one of the most affordable Michelin star restaurants in New York (and the first noodle restaurant in the United States to earn the honour) if you opt for a massive bowl of gochu ramyun ($18) with pork belly, white kimchi and charred scallion oil in a spicy pork bone broth and call it a day, but there are plenty of fancier options for a fat wallet. Wagyu ramen features raw Miyazaki wagyu brisket in veal bone broth while truffle bibim myun folds truffle duxelles into tofu mousse with a final flourish of freshly shaved Périgord truffles.