Sunday, July 17, 2011

Danji (New York, NY)

Several years back, I remember reading in a publication somewhere the claim that Korean food would never be "in" or "sexy". Boy was that article wrong. In the past several years, there's been a veritable Korean food revolution in NYC and the rest of the U.S. David Chang has become a household name, Korean tacos are trendy on both coasts, and even mainstream Fairway Market in NYC now carries kimchi. Chef Hooni Kim's Danji sure isn't bucking the trend. The food and drink at this six-month-old newcomer are about as sexy as they come in Midtown West.

The restaurant's menu is divvied up into "modern" and "traditional" small plates. On the traditional side, there are offerings like spicy whelk salad with buckwheat noodles; poached sablefish with spicy daikon; and kimchi, tofu and grilled pork belly. The modern half includes spicy pork belly or bulgogi beef sliders); spicy "KFC" Korean fire chicken wings; and fried calamari with wasabi mayonnaise. A number of dishes on both sides of the menu draw on Chef Kim's classical French training at three-Michelin starred Daniel.

On a recent evening, a buddy and I stopped by for a quick snack. We only ordered two dishes, each, and a side of kimchi, but portions were large enough that our snack turned into a legitimate meal.

Our first plate, a generous serving of yook hwe / steak tartare with quail yolk, toasted pine nuts and asian pear, was intensely delicious -- really the standout of the evening. The beef was intensely fresh and flavorful, nicely marbled, and cut in a small dice, which highlighted the lovely, chewy texture. It was lightly enough dressed (with soy sauce and jalapenos, I think) to leave the flavors of the high quality meat intact. The quail egg yolk served on the side, was also lovely, served at just the right temperature and attractively presented on a neat pile of bonito. Fresh, crisp Asian pear added the perfect contrasting elements of sweet and crisp. This was a rich, decadent and flawless dish. The only version I've had that I liked better in NYC was David Chang's: The meat he uses is of higher quality, but only by a bit. (10/10)

Yook Hwe / Steak Tartare
Yook Hwe Closeup

I didn't try my companion's gochu pajeon / scallion and long hot pepper pancake. This vegetarian option came sizzling on an individually sized iron griddle, with an audibly crisp crust, and it smelled fantastic -- but it was extremely greasy. The sheen of oil on the pancake's surface was as pronounced as it would have been had the pancake been deep fried. Health conscious diners may want to try asking the kitchen to cut back on the oil. (Not Rated)

Gochu Pajeon

Our next dish, the kimchi bacon chorizo ‘paella’ (for 2) with optional fried Knoll Krest Farm Egg, was another standout. It came with the most gorgeous crust imaginable (places like Soccarat should take note!) and the velvety yolk of the very fresh egg oozed gorgeously over the rice. The texture of the rice was perfect -- chewy, without any hint of either toughness or mushiness -- and it was as intensely flavorful a preparation as I've had, anywhere. (10/10) 

Kimchi Bacon Chorizo Paella

My dining companion ordered another dish off the vegetarian menu, a version of japchae / stir fried vermicelli with vegetables. (There's also a non-vegetarian version available, which includes vegetables and beef.) I only tried a bite of the noodles, which was bland without the sauce that was served with the dish, on the side. The ratio of noodles to vegetables was higher than I prefer it. (6/10)


The trio of kimchis was fine: middle of the road and likable, if a bit bland. All three -- the cucumber, Napa cabbage, and daikon radish kimchis -- lacked pungency, probably to make them gringo-friendly. Acidic, sweet and salty elements were in proper balance, though. (6/10)

Trio of Kimchis

As good as much of the food was and as strong as this kitchen can clearly be, I should point out that Danji probably isn't for everyone. The noise level is relatively intense and there were moments, especially between 7:30 and 8 p.m. or so, when it was difficult to converse. Suffice it to say that this isn't a good place for anyone who's hard of hearing. By 8:30, though, the crowds had thinned noticeably and conversation became possible without shouting.

The seating situation may also not appeal across the board. In the far back, there are regular, cafe-style two-tops where customers can sit and eat, but most of the restaurant's seating is at long, communal bars, where dining companions pull up across from one another on bar stools. Seats are far enough apart that you don't feel like you have to chat with your neighbors, but you could if you wanted to. (The setup is similar to Soccarat's.) I personally found the bar stools to be perfectly comfortable, but my dining companion did not.

None of these factors will keep me from coming back for the excellent beef tartare or kimchi paella, of course, or to try the rest of the menu. From what I've seen so far, I expect it to be fantastic.

346 West 52 Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 586-2880

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