Amid our verdant culinary era where steaks are often made out of cauliflower, where veggie burgers are increasingly the burgers of choice, and where bacon isn't so much a porky slab as a tiny lardon at the bottom of a soup bowl, it’s sometimes hard not to look back upon the artery-clogged aughts with nostalgia. Those were the heady days when chefs of all stripes popularized techniques that made unhealthy foods unhealthier. Crif Dogs championed the deep-fried frankfurter. Per Se, using an old Alain Ducasse hack, folded whipped cream into its cheese-y risottos. Resto won accolades by smearing grilled cheese sandwiches with bechamel, swine belly, and aioli, while DB Bistro skyrocketed to stardom by stuffing its burger with foie gras. Sure, many of those dishes are still popular; it’s just that they're no longer at the heart of our leaner, quinoa-spiked zeitgeist. But rest assured, there are rebels hovering at the fringes, waiting to push the envelope in a meatier, fattier direction. Among the members of that clever minority is Oiji in the East Village, a beefy little Korean restaurant dishing out rice and potato chips that taste like they were larded up by a Michelin-starred amusement park chef.
Let’s start with the what Oiji's menu calls "buttered rice," an understatement that evokes a Rockwell-esque image of dairy fat melting over simple white grains. As if! The kitchen takes cooked rice and fully soaks it in warm butter. Then, during service, the starch is toasted with beef braising liquid and a richer French butter. The flavor is startling; it recalls a cleaner version of the delicious yellow goo with which you douse your movie theater popcorn. On top of the firm grains lie a poached egg and a few slices of braised beef shank, packing a concentrated, bovine punch. It's all a gourmet version of the classic jang-jo-rim, a dish more commonly found in Korean school lunchboxes than a high-end restaurant. Order it.
The homemade potato chips, dead ringers for the kettle-cooked variety, are doused in uber-fatty French butter as well, and laced with a touch of honey and cayenne. It's a sweet, salty, crunchy side dish that essentially functions as the restaurant’s only dessert. Think of the candy-like crisps as a lighter, more uncomplicated answer to baklava, with the tuber acting as a fine stand-in for phyllo. A rep tells me that Oiji "can hardly keep up with demand" for the confection, which is based off of a mass-produced snack that spawned a Cronut-like craze in Korea this year. A small bag of those in-demand chips will cost $9 on eBay. At Oiji, they're $5.
Those two knockouts should give New York hope about the state of affordable, risk-taking, neighborhood restaurants.
Those two knockouts, part of a concise, meat-heavy, vegetable-lite menu, served at a reasonable cost (only two dishes rise above $18), in a tiny space (the dining area is smaller than the washrooms at big box Asian fusion joints) should give New York hope about the state of affordable, risk-taking, neighborhood restaurants. Chefs Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku, who trained at Gramercy Tavern and Bouley, respectively, have challenged themselves to refine the comfort food of their native Seoul and beyond. In doing so, they've made Oiji one of the most exhilarating openings of 2015, not to mention one of the city's finest modern Korean restaurants.
Bimibap, the traditional meat and vegetable hotpot, is deconstructed into a rainbow of fillings — sweet beef, egg white, yolk, shiitake mushrooms, and carrots — all meant for stuffing into red and green rice blini. The expertly julienned ingredients express themselves with preternatural clarity because the crepes are as thin as tissue paper. Take a bite of the avant-garde taco and it seems to disappear on the palate.
Such dishes are a reminder of how far Korean cuisine has come in Manhattan over the past decade, adapting to local palates and expanding past the DIY grilled meat, dumpling, and karaoke parlors of Midtown or St. Marks. David Chang’s Momofuku empire, while largely a collection eclectic American restaurants, deserves credit in this regard, for introducing a certain class of food-crazed Westerners to the joys of eating lettuce-wrapped pork, and for proving that large-format Korean fried chicken can merit luxury status with a $135 price tag. Then there’s Hooni Kim’s Danji and Hanjan, two trendsetters whose non-GMO meats command sizable crowds and higher prices than the cheaper commodity fare one finds in certain K-town restaurants. And the fact that the two-Michelin-starred Jungsik is still open proves that at least some folks are willing to spend $180 on Korean tasting menus. So while New York has maintained a somewhat complicated relationship with high-end Chinese or Mexican fare in recent years, the city has generally accepted ambitious, creative Korean cuisine with slightly more open arms.
At Oiji, "we're taking dishes that our moms would cook for us at home, but elevating them to a higher level," the chefs tell me via email. Indeed, the seafood soup with crackling rice and mussels looks as rustic as anything in a neighborhood pub. Then you take a sip; the shrimp stock, powerfully redolent of the ocean, slides across the tongue with the same silkiness you'd expect from a fancy Southern French hangout.
Just one thing: if you'd like to enjoy that dish at one of the tables, you'd be well served to pretend Oiji is a tasting menu venue and secure your spot up to a month in advance, as the restaurant only sets aside about seven of its 39-seats for walk-ins, and those seven spaces are all at the bar. It's policy that goes against the reservations-light ethos of the casual gastronomic world, where good establishments more sensibly allocate seats to accommodate both plan-ahead diners and impromptu eaters in an effort to make their restaurants more easily accessible to all.
The good news is that waits for bar stools are short in these dog days of summer – all the more reason to indulge in a cool beef tartare, dotted in the traditional Korean style with sweet Asian pears, or a bowl of firm buckwheat noodles, sitting in a tangy, garlicky pool of pickled ramp juice and soy sauce. Move onto katsu-like fried chicken, with an ethereal crunch and neutral flavor, or pine smoked mackerel for an oily ode to the forest.
Waiters recommend about five plates for parties of two, but portions are restrained so even the heftier dishes are manageable for solo diners. Expect the following "slow-cook" preparations to warm up your insides amid all the air-conditioning this summer: that bonkers buttered rice and beef, braised chicken drumsticks (siting in a pool of sugar sweetened poultry stock), perfectly rendered pork belly (atop a mount of pungent, overripe kimchi), tender oxtail (in a broth that could qualify as one of the city's best beef soups) and sliced pig's trotter (served cool, but dominated by rib-sticking gelatins and warming five-spice).
Some restaurants devote entire sections of their menu to mains for two that might run $100 or more. Oiji has just one such dish, a bowl of sautéed gochujang pork, flanked by a separate bowl of gang-deon-jang, a rarely-seen-in-New York preparation that combines the following flavor bombs: fermented soybean, anchovy stock, shiitake, beef brisket, long bean zucchini, and honey. The incendiary stews are meant for wrapping in lettuce leaves; I ate them with a spoon to let all the fiery notes come through. For this you pay just $34.
Sorbet or ice cream would be nice to take the edge off all the richness, and the chefs tell me they're looking into other traditional Korean desserts to offer in the coming months. For now, your only sweet option is those butter-drenched potato chips. They're a quirky, fatty, awesome approach to refinement. That's Oiji for you. I dig it.
Cost: Most dishes at $18 or under.
Sample dishes: Beef shank with buttered rice, pig's trotter, pine-smoked mackerel, seafood broth with crispy rice, slow cooked oxtail, pork belly with braised kimchi.
Bonus tip: Remember that most tables are booked well in advance via telephone or OpenTable.