New York's Koreatown is a compact neighborhood just southeast of Herald Square that features restaurants, bars, and karaoke parlors, most jammed into a single tumultuous block of 32nd Street. Now, one can encounter all those things and more in an even more compressed space — a single barnlike building on Brooklyn’s Douglass Street, scarcely a block from the Gowanus Canal.
Insa ("Greetings") is the work of husband-and-wife team Sohui Kim and Ben Schneider, who founded Red Hook’s Good Fork in 2006, where a few Korean flourishes were added to what was basically a standard bistro menu. The new place, however, is full-speed-ahead Korean.
The build-out of the 4,600 square-foot former warehouse is quirky as hell. There’s a high-ceilinged dining room composed of wooden slats and outfitted with communal picnic tables, making you feel like you’re back at summer camp; a kitchen behind an undulant white wall that looks like a fortress on the moon; a hallway with bathrooms and five karaoke studios featuring strange decorative themes; and a separate bar that pitches what the owners are pleased to call Korean tiki cocktails ($12 each). While the one called Silk Punch — featuring coconut milk, corn silk, and crème de banana — is repulsive, the K-Town Old Fashioned, laced with rye and rum and sweetened with jujube sugar, is totally on the money.
Seating around 140 in the bunkhouse and bar, and an additional 75 in the karaoke rooms, where you can eat and sing simultaneously, the place has been mobbed since its mid-December inception. Early on, entire Asian families appeared, for whom Insa was one of Brooklyn’s rare Korean restaurants. Later, the karaoke caught on with neighborhood scenesters, who also play shuffleboard and climb artificial rocks in nearby establishments. Behold the modern Gowanus! On my visits, the karaoke rooms were jammed, and a trip to the bathroom found one regaled with off-key singing that sounded like animals being tortured. No matter, it’s all part of the funhouse atmosphere of Insa.
The place has been mobbed since its mid-December inception. Behold the modern Gowanus!
Luckily, the food is often quite good. As an establishment for which invented cocktails, craft beer, soju, wine, and sake are front-and-center, more attention is paid to apps and short dishes than at Koreatown restaurants. Some stray from the standard Korean menu: Impaled on metal chopsticks, a pair of seafood corndogs ($15) sees batons of fishcake fried to a deep brown and squiggled with mayo and gochujang — the funky Korean ketchup surrogate. Topped with an egg yolk, the beef tartare is chunky and shotgunned with diced daikon and black sesame seeds.
Best of all is a rarely seen regional blood sausage called soondae. It’s rich, crumbly, and wildly delicious. A couple of other appetizers are less exciting, including a version of the school-kid classic lunch, tteokbokki, which is here meager in the cylindrical rice cakes and topped with a sauce too thin and pale. Bolden it up, guys! The shredded vegetable fritters called yache twigim proved too limp and bland to stand up to a snort of soju, and the Korean fried chicken is nothing to write home about.
The bill of fare is far-ranging, as if a compendium rather than a mere menu were being assembled, and it includes examples of nearly every type of Korean dish, from the gooey pancakes called pajeon, to the symmetrical assortment of vegetables and meats known by the beatnik-y name of bibimbap, to the fiery jjigae stews. There are barbecues, of course, done at your table by attendants whose purpose seems partly to get you to eat fast and be on your way.
The bill of fare, more a compendium than a menu, includes examples of nearly every type of Korean dish.
The go-to barbecue order is yangnyum galbi ($35), the marinated beef short ribs that arrive already snipped from the bone in thin ribbons; they grill up sweet and nicely greasy. Greasier still — in a good way — is the beef brisket ($28), which provides more chew and tastes much beefier than the short rib, especially when wrapped in the accompanying lettuces and perilla leaves with a choice of condiments. A good quantity of banchan come alongside, though none involve raw meat or fish such as you might find in Flushing. There are some maverick choices, too, including an oddball combo of squid and octopus that makes the meal seem positively Sicilian.
For those who haplessly arrive on the weekends or at peak periods, you’re likely to be given a choice of waiting over an hour or eating almost immediately in the bar. There are no barbecue fixtures in the bar, but choose carefully, and you’ll have a great meal anyway, gas flames or not. From the substantial Stews section comes galbijjim (it sounds like a Joseph Conrad hero), a generous hump of well-braised beef perched atop a gravy soaked tower of pumpkin and chestnuts. Knock it back with a couple of tiki cocktails, and you won’t mind at all missing the dining room’s summer-campy feel.
Cost: Dinner for two, featuring two cocktails, two apps, and one serving of barbecued short ribs, including tax and tip, $120.
Sample dishes: Chadolbaegi (brisket BBQ), galbijjim (braised short ribs), soondae (blood sausage), dwenjang jjigae (miso stew).
What to drink: K-Town Old Fashioned, OB Korean beer, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace Saison, Insa house soju (made in Red Hook by Van Brunt Still House).
Bonus tip: Note that there is a 20 percent "administrative fee" added to the check. Don’t make the mistake I did on my first visit and add an additional 20 percent on top of that.