Book Review: The Forgotten WaltzOctober 3, 2011
Time to Make the PestoOctober 17, 2011
Why do I love Korean food? The vibrant blending of flavors is the most obvious reason, but that’s too simple an answer. Stupendous flavor is a prerequisite, but what makes a great cuisine rise above that basic foundation? A recent lunch at the NYC restaurant Kunjip with my friend Elizabeth gave me another chance to count the ways…
From the moment you sit down, the deluge of banchan—the small plates that are ferried to your table as if you are the capricious ruler of a wealthy, distant emirate who needs to be appeased—will send you into the happiest kind of sensory overload. Some are spicy, some sour, others sweet. A few creations (like a stewed eggplant dish we had) are so soft they nearly disintegrate as soon as you put them in your mouth. Others, like the ones that incorporate cured fish or radish, are pleasantly chewy or crunchy. The assortment of pungent kimchi, at various stages of fermentation, always awaken the palate. And then there are those panchan that surprise and inspire, like a serving of parsley (leaves and stalks intact), poached and tossed with sesame oil and sesame seeds. Who knew cooked parsley could be such a revelation? There is little room for boredom, and even if you don’t like every single offering, you’re bound to enjoy a few. (Warning: If you enjoy none of them, well, it was nice knowing you, and may you have a good—albeit bland—life…)
One of our main courses was a combo that included a small (and I used that term loosely) hot pot containing a spicy soft-tofu stew with a seafood broth. I was particularly taken by the aroma of this dish because I couldn’t actually eat it. I’m allergic to prawns, which were floating in the broth, but we had ordered the dish anyway, because I knew Elizabeth would enjoy it. The funny thing is that, in the end, so did I. Though I didn’t sample it (call me quirky, but I prefer avoiding hives), even just a few whiffs of the crustacean-scented steam that rose from the bowl gave me a vicarious thrill.
They say that we eat with our eyes, and perhaps “they” are Korean. Of course, flavor is always the most important factor in a good dining experience, but it surely doesn’t hurt to be presented with food as vividly beautiful as gopdol bibimbap (a hot stone pot filled with ground beef, assorted vegetables and egg atop rice, served with gochujang, a red chile and fermented-bean paste). With a dish like this, you’re also permitted a quiet moment of smugness about the cornucopia of vitamins and antioxidants you are consuming. (Not that I’m advocating smugness, but we all succumb sometimes anyway.) And even though gopdol bibimbap is not the most adventurous of menu options, it’s a classic of Korean cuisine, so I enjoy trying it at different restaurants and tasting the various iterations. Even when an establishment doesn’t produce my favorite version (and Kunjip’s, while delicious, is not my favorite), it’s still always a solid choice.
4) & 5) Texture & Temperature.
Because we’d already chosen two sizzling hot pots, we decided to round out the meal with an order of bibim nang myun (spicy, cold buckwheat noodles with egg). This cellphone photo does not in any way do it justice. The “cold” in the description is no joke—Elizabeth lifted a chunk of ice out of the metal serving bowl—and I find it to be one of the most satisfying things to eat when it’s hot and humid outside, as it was last week. The cool temperature of the noodles counteracts the heat of the spicy sauce, though it is by no means a burn-the-taste-buds-off-your-tongue kind of heat. (And actually, we both found it to be quite mild, even after telling our waiter that we wanted it spicy. Elizabeth, who grew up in New Mexico, aptly compared the flavor to that of a Chimayo chile.) The spongy texture of the buckwheat noodles is set against the crisp slivers of apple, chewy slices of beef and firm wedges of hard-boiled egg. This is a dish I’d love to have waiting for me in the refrigerator when I walk through the door after a late night out with pals.
Kunjip, 9 West 32nd St. (between Broadway & 5th Avenue), 212-216-9487.