The gritty Irish-American roots of the Hell's Kitchen area of New York City are giving way to a more eclectic food scene and home to Chef Hooni Kim's Danji restaurant, which is America's only Michelin-rated Korean restaurant.
This was the second Korean restaurant I dragged my family into during a recent brief trip to the East Coast. This time I included my grandmother-in-law, who has never eaten Korean food.
One of the first things I noticed was the lack of cell phone reception in restaurant. Maybe that is a good thing, although it made it much more difficult to share my findings on Instagram.
The cocktail menu looked fun, but no one in my party was up for it. Who wants to drink alone? As a Californian, I was disappointed by the lack of California wines on the wine. But Danji is certainly representing the Korean rice brew 막걸리 makgeoli, at least indirectly with Hitachino white rice and red rice ales on the beer and wine list.
We were eating lunch a little late — again. Yet the selection of more lunch-sized items resulted in less dish-sharing than we did at Kristalbelli. Most of the dishes we ordered didn't last long enough for sharing.
|Danji's famous bulgogi sliders. Don't let the spicy pickle scare you. (Jeff Quackenbush photo)|
The restaurant is known for its 불고기 bulgogi sliders ($12 or two and $16 for three). The sauteed beef had pleasantly pronounced savory-sweetness topped by two spicy cucumber pickles. My spiciness-adverse, highly cuisine-critical family had no problem with that custom condiment and thought the sliders were the best they've tasted on either coast.
|Danji's spin on Korean Fried Chicken wings. (Photo by Tammy Quackenbush)|
Spicy K.F.C. (as in Korean fried chicken) fire chicken ($10) came with wet wipes, just like the fried-chicken restaurants in Korea. Nice touch. The breading was crunchy and glazed with a zippy sweet-and-sour sauce — a spicy front end with a mellow sweet, garlicky finish. (I've been too long in California wine country.)
|This is the first time I saw bulgogi dubap on a Korean restaurant menu in the States. (Jeff Quackenbush photo)|
My great-aunt-in-law ordered 불고기덥밥 bulgogi dupbap (bulgogi over rice, $14). The beef brisket was marinated bulgogi-style, the well-cooked rice garnished with green onions. It came with daikon and cabbage kimchi sides and a small bowl of daikon and beef soup. It was a complete Korean meal.
"Farmers market" 비빔밥 bibimbap ($13) had over the large bowl of rice an assortment of fresh vegetables from Satur Farm on Long Island, a fried jidori (free-range) egg and 두부 dubu (tofu). The dish was served with daikon and cabbage kimchi sides.
Daikon beef soup with silky tofu and beef ($4 for small bowl, $7 for large bowl). My grandmother-in-law, who had not had much of an appetite for a while, loved the combination of flavors so much she devoured three small bowlfuls.
|Fried vegetarian mandu. (Tammy Quackenbush photo)|
The menu said, "hand-made veg dumplings w. spicy soy sauce," but it didn't say these are fried rather than steamed. These dumplings ($7), called 만두 mandu in Korean, contained green onion with tofu. The dipping sauce provided nonthreatening zing.
Hands down, the bulgogi sliders were the biggest hits in my Korean cuisine neophyte family, but they had no complaints about anything we ordered. The causal atmosphere, smaller menu items and prompt service made Danji a pleasant experience for Koreaphile and newcomers alike.
346 W. 52nd St.
New York, NY 10019
Hours: Monday–Friday, noon–2:30 p.m.; Monday–Thursday, 5:30 p.m.–midnight; Friday–Saturday, 5:30 p.m.–1 a.m.