The chef behind one of Manhattan’s trailblazing Korean restaurants has made her way to Park Slope. Jenny Kwak — who, with her mother, ran restaurants like Do Hwa credited with being in the first wave of restaurants to popularize Korean food outside of K-Town — is now at the helm of a much smaller restaurant called Haenyeo, owned with her husband Terrence Segura.
Haenyeo, located at 239 Fifth Ave. at Carroll St., is named for the women on Jeju Island who dive to harvest seafood like sea urchin and squid; Segura became obsessed with them for their “tough as nails” reputation, he says. It’s an ode to those women, but it’s also a hat tip to the “strong women” duo of Kwak and her mother Myung Ja, who ran restaurants in Manhattan as a team for more than 20 years.
Though seafood plays a role in the menu, Kwak takes a playful approach to Korean flavors, serving traditional dishes like bibimbap and kalbi alongside options with a twist. Tteokbokki, the spicy rice cake dish, comes topped with Oaxcan cheese and chorizo, and oysters with seaweed butter get grilled, the way that they are in Segura’s hometown of New Orleans.
Haenyeo is dinner-only for now, but Kwak and Segura eventually plan to open all day, with coffee and beignets at all hours, and noodle soups and kimbap, or Korean sushi rolls, for lunch. Drinks, helmed by Segura, include cocktails like “The Squid and the Whale,” which has mizu lemongrass shochu, sesame oil, and egg white.
It’s intended to be a neighborhood restaurant with comforting food, Kwak says. With 40 seats, it’s less than half the size of Do Hwa, which was a bustling space with tabletop grilling.
“I love the small restaurant format. Things don’t get lost in the food,” she says. “At big Korean restaurants, when you have a ton of staff in the kitchen, things get formatted to high volume. I’m trying to do homey, small dishes.”
This is now their only restaurant; Do Hwa closed this year after the lease ran up. The Kwaks opened it in 2000 as a sister restaurant to Dok Suni in the East Village, which shuttered years ago and now houses respected modern Korean restaurant Oiji.
At the time, Dok Suni and Do Hwa were among the few Korean restaurants in the city to open outside of K-Town. With the decision to pair American-style service with traditional Korean food, they pushed wider appreciation of the cuisine in New York — one that’s led to a slew of modern Korean American restaurants today. Director Quentin Tarantino named himself a fan of Dok Suni and subsequently invested in Do Hwa. (He’s not an investor in Park Slope. “I haven’t seen him in a while,” Kwak says.)
Now, Myung Ja Kwak is mostly retired, though she’s still charged with pickling the kimchi served in the restaurant. And part of the move to Park Slope was that Kwak and Segura, done with the pace of West Village dining, wanted a different pace of life. “We’re just older now. We just want to work civilized hours,” Kwak says.
Haenyeo is now open Sunday through Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until 11 p.m. Brunch and lunch will be added soon.