From the 5th night of my New York trip
Jungsik calls its cuisine “New Korean,” but what you may recognize, if you have spent some time around the soul-satisfying Korean dining table, are familiar flavors and dishes – at least in their constituent elements. What you may find uncommon at Jungsik is the precision with which strong flavors are executed, and the setting in which a Korean feast of sorts is revealed.
The restaurant’s name “Jungsik,” which shares that of its chef-proprietor Jung Sik Yim, translates to “formal dinner” in Korean. But instead of the classic bansang style of dining, in which the whole host of dishes are delivered all at once – up to 7, 9, or even 12 courses, to make the table’s legs weak, so they say – the dishes at Jungsik come sequentially. Of course the tasting menu format is nothing new, and it’s arguably de rigueur at a Michelin 2-star, but what it allows for here are delicate preparations of reinterpreted Korean dishes, which hinge on contrasts and textures that would be lost otherwise.
Quickly after I’m seated, I’m presented with a series of amuse bouches, loosely based on banchan which start every Korean meal. There is a delicate cornet of salmon roe concealing sea urchin, a latent surprise whose lushness contrasts well with the crisp rice tuile. A fried oyster rolled in squid ink breadcrumbs and atop a spiced anchovy aioli looks curious but reminds you loosely of a refined gul jeon, or oyster pancake. A fleshy rosé champagne bridges the amuses well.
Compressed watermelon with feta and lime serves as a palette cleanser.
The dense but soft jangjorim, soy-braised beef wrapped in seaweed, is the only amuse here you might also find at other Korean restaurants.
Less quotidian, but also less distinct, are the foie gras mousse with green apple jelly and the first course – caviar atop some moderately fatty Spanish tuna belly and crispy quinoa. These delicacies are fine, but they don’t excite the way the proceeding dishes do.
Raw baby squid and poached white asparagus prove to be a great match. The white asparagus is tender, and it complements the slippery squid nicely. An astringent asparagus stem in center is meant to mimic ginger, and rosé, said to be one of the few pairing options for ginger, makes another appearance. It’s not quite a natural pairing for the dashi broth, but the intent is there. Konbu powder and dashi broth amplify the squid, and their combined ocean flavor is somewhat reminiscent of jogaetang, the clam soup that usually accompanies spicy stir-fried dishes. The dashi is merely warm, but these soups are said to be “cooling” in a sense – in Korean, they say siwonhada – and are a great foil to spicy dishes.
As if on cue, I’m served a delicately fried octopus tentacle with a ssamjang aioli, a dish which beckons thoughts of nakji bokkeum, the comforting, spicy stir-fried octopus dish found in the repertoire of Korean home kitchens and late-night establishments alike. The octopus was braised in dashi for an hour and then flash deep fried. The result is a just-charred exterior, whose light crisp is reminiscent of the caramelization that gojuchang provides in stir-fried bokkeum dishes. An aged chenin blanc packs nutty sherry notes that stand up to the mildly sweet and pungent aioli, particularly its doenjang base.
(I know it’s a terrible picture, sorry!)
A piece of grilled fish arrives, and it looks curiously plain on the plate. It’s accompanied by a tiny vial: fresh pressed chamgiruem, Korean sesame oil, which surprises with its aroma when uncorked. Hidden underneath the branzino is a baek kimchi, the white variety of kimchi that invigorates not with spice but rather with its brine. The pairing of sesame oil and white kimchi is classic, but the purity of their flavors here speak of quality ingredients and the precision with which with they are paired. White burgundy from Beaune does a good job in harnessing the spectrum of flavors. The dish looks plain against a nondescript white plate, but there’s some bold tastes in the balancing act. I’m beginning to see Jungsik’s subtle but deft hand in refining familiar Korean dishes.
Seaweed rice and crispy quinoa with sea urchin reminds me of the flavors of kimbap.
Galbi is (isn’t it always?) delicious. Here it’s American “wagyu.” Ehlers Estate cab from St. Helena is a natural match.
Jungsik’s pastry is excellent. White asparagus makes a reprise here as ice cream at the center of a refreshing “pre-dessert” with strawberry juice, fraises des bois, white grapes, Timut pepper, and arugula. Pepper flavors (both arugula and the vibrant Timut peppercorn) intensify the strawberries’ sweetness. A racy Mosel kabinett Riesling culls all the flavors of this “Spring Garden” dessert.
The next two desserts are just as well composed. A faux banana made of a white chocolate shell and banana ice cream arrives amongst a basket of real fruits; the pectin-like flavor from the semi-sweet white chocolate is almost convincing. It’s served with coffee ice cream and black sesame crumble.
Jungsik’s version of mat tang, Korean candied sweet potato, is a great finish. Sweet potato and honey butter cream, vanilla ice cream, and Okinawan kuromitsu syrup have homey, roasted flavors that comfort and endure.
I linger over some traditional green tea from Jeju as I digest. After eleven plus dishes have come and went, the tablecloth is still as stark as when I first arrived. The table’s legs may not have weakened one bit, but I’m left with a good impression of having experienced a Korean banquet of sorts. Not like having indulged in plate after plate of barbecue, but in the sense that a meal at Jungsik entails a spectrum of Korean flavors which prove familiar when you parse the courses. Too much has been debated about the formality of the service and white tablecloths at this Tribeca destination. What’s more interesting to me is how Jungsik harnesses contrasts between robust flavors in a way that is both recognizable and new, and I leave quite satisfied.
JUNGSIK (New York location)
2 Harrison Street, NY 10013
favorite dishes: Octopus, Branzino