A Korean barbecue restaurant whose history traces back to three generations of female owners swings open in Soho this weekend — and for some, the spot may feel familiar.
The Woo, spearheaded by Julie Choi, whose family also runs Bann in Midtown, is a new iteration of a restaurant her mother used to run on Mercer Street, which shuttered after a 12-year run in 2011. Then called Woo Lae Oak, the restaurant was credited with expanding Korean fare outside the confines of Koreatown, long before the sizzling, grill-it-yourself experience became mainstream.
Choi’s new, three-story venue is opening Saturday at 206 Spring St., a few blocks from the one her mother opened in 1999. Her mother’s version followed the original Woo Lae Oak in Midtown, which was brought to Manhattan by Choi’s grandmother, a tiny woman under 5-feet tall who spoke little to no English, in 1974.
Choi hopes her restaurant will continue shaping New Yorkers’ understanding of Korean food, just as her mother’s and grandmother’s restaurants did years ago. But despite all the family history, the Woo won’t be quite the same as the previous ones, she says. Her restaurant has modified its cooking techniques to reflect the modern era, she tells Eater.
“A lot of people say we’re a watered-down version of Korean food,” Choi says, but she describes it differently. Her aim is to tone down saltiness and spiciness, and present dishes in a “refined and elegant atmosphere.”
The signature fish dish at Woo Lae Oak, made with a sweet-and-spicy, garlic soy-reduction, was originally boiled two separate times, for instance. “Why do that to a cooked piece of fish?” Choi says. At the Woo, the dish will be simmered instead. “If you use such nice ingredients, you don’t have to boil it twice. We try to treat the ingredients as special as possible, while still trying to keep it Korean and authentic,” she says.
Also new will be the option to start with small, Korean-style sharing plates, as well as kimbap, sushi rolls filled with vegetables and lobster, beef, or shrimp, among other protein options. Fried calamari and scallion pancakes will join the menu, too. Barbecue remains the centerpiece, with more than a dozen options from duck to yellowfin tuna, but unlike past iterations of the Woo, the new restaurant will eventually offer less ubiquitous meats like ostrich and venison. A few former favorites will return though, like ke sal mari, a crab and leek dish wrapped in spinach crepes.
It’s a big enterprise. Between two floors and a basemen kitchen, about 250 guests can dine in the sleek space that’s intended to be a slightly upscale version of Korean barbecue restaurant, equipped with grilling tables sporting a downdraft system that pulls the smoke from cooking down and out of the restaurant. Choi wants it to be filled with “the kids of the people who used to be regulars” at Woo Lae Oak, she says.
She’s reopening the restaurant at a time when the perception of Korean food has changed across the U.S., thanks to the rise of Korean culture in the mainstream and Korean-American chefs like David Chang and Roy Choi. Today, New Yorkers have plenty of places to choose from to experience modern takes on Korean fare, from Cote Korean Steakhouse to Atomix to Soogil, all of which have opened in the past couple of years.
“Right now it’s super popular, but back then no one really knew,” Choi says.
This establishment carries a weight beyond being a new fine dining Korean restaurant in a competitive city — it’s a family relic, a piece of Choi’s childhood, and now, a piece of her son’s, too. Choi’s first job was to scoop rice and man the cashier at Woo Lae Oak, and at 17, she was named pastry chef. It’s where she met her husband, and twenty years later, they now run Bann together.
When Choi’s family opened Bann, a family-friendly spot that also specializes in Korean barbecue, in 2006, Choi stepped out of the kitchen and into the managerial side of the business. Her 7-year-old son took his first steps there — “he says he wants to be a chef,” Choi says.
The Woo will be open from noon to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.