Since it was a porn bookshop a decade ago, the glassed-in storefront at the corner of Christopher and Greenwich streets in the West Village has been several restaurants. One was called Nighthawks and was tricked out to look like the inspiration for the famous Edward Hopper painting.
Don’t be fooled — the storefront is the wrong shape, and the actual source diner is a matter of debate. Now, happily, the space has been reopened as stylish Korean noodle parlor JeJu Noodle Bar, though the Nighthawks awning has been retained.
The inside radiates modernity, with dangling Edison bulb and a bar and prep area where the restaurant’s handsome china is stacked and backlit. Small tables scatter along the two street frontages, all furnishing views of the Village. Only the black-and-white honeycomb tiles on the floor suggest the antiquity of the premises.
The place now serves the Korean version of ramen, known as ramyun. These wavy noodles are closer to those found in the plastic-wrapped packs loved by harried parents and college students, only denser and of higher quality. You won’t be disappointed with the noodles at JeJu. The menu is extremely spare, and the ramyun come in only three configurations, costing $16 to $17.50.
One narrow, dark, and tall bowl called “so-ramyun” features a beefy broth made from veal bones. Pieces of brisket and raw, well-marbled steak are dropped in the broth, with pickled garlic, fried garlic, and garlic oil ramping up the flavor. This is instantly one of the city’s best bowls of ramen. Another features a red pork broth that tastes like one of the chigae stews found in Korean restaurants, spicy and slightly tart. “Gochu ramyun” contains pork belly, white kimchee, and charred scallion oil. A third bowl is based on a chicken bonito broth harboring confit chicken and jalapeños.
The three soups are innovative, definitely Korean but also imbued with a distinctly international point of view via chef Douglas Kim. The apps are similarly creative. On a first visit, a friend and I tried the house chicken wings, five in number and tossed with pea pods, lettuces, and lime wedges into a colorful salad ($13). The fresh tofu called soondubu came in a sun-dried tomato broth. Bonus mussels tossed in might make you wish it were an entrée, while the classic cucumber kimchee has been turned into a full-blown app with a sour plum dressing and shiso leaves.
When I mentioned that this last dish is free in most Korean restaurants, by way of making conversation with the hostess, she replied, “Oh, this isn’t Korean food, it’s Korean-American food.” Point taken. While the food verges on the wonderful at JeJu, the service is currently a bit scattered. There’s no actual waitstaff. Only a hostess takes orders, and the dishes are delivered to the tables by the cooks, who temporarily abandon their stations to do so. On the other hand, your dish runner may turn out to be the chef himself. Tell him how much you like the food.