An exciting debut restaurant from up-and-coming chef Jae Lee opens tonight in the East Village, serving a menu of Korean-American fare with an emphasis on wok-cooked dishes.
Nowon (at 507 East 6th Street between Avenues A and B) is named for the district of Seoul where Lee grew up before moving with his family to Jamaica, Queens. But the restaurant draws equal inspiration from its East Village surroundings, where Lee started cooking more than a decade ago. Think honey butter tater tots with labneh and seaweed seasoning, alongside chopped cheese rice cakes with beef, spices, and soy-pickled jalapeño.
And while American hip-hop from the ’90s to 2000s plays in the 24-seat dining room and 10-seat bar, the bathroom — outfitted to look like a Korean karaoke room — will blare its own playlist of Korean hip-hop.
“I call it Korean-inspired with New York swag,” says Lee.
Lee, a former executive chef at Dale Talde’s Rice & Gold and Masaharu Morimoto’s Momosan Ramen & Sake, gained attention this year with a pop-up residency at Black Emperor Bar. Eater critic Ryan Sutton praised the chef’s standout dry-aged burger, a dish that generated out-the-door lines.
It’s available at Nowon, with two Pat LaFrieda meats patties, American cheese, kimchi mayo, and dill pickle on a sesame seeded bun ($20). But to keep the burger — and attendant hype — from dominating the new restaurant, Lee will only serve it from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Instead, the chef hopes to highlight a wider range of dishes at Nowon, including Korean wok-cooking. In Korea, woks are typically reserved for Korean-Chinese restaurants, which aren’t particularly prestigious. “It’s so interesting because in China, wok cooking is fast but delicate. Michelin starred restaurants cook in woks.... you can’t imitate the flavor of a wok in any type of cooking style,” he says.
It’s also a style that resonates with Lee, he says. “Personally, I think wok is my personality. I can go from zero to 100. I’m strong and full of fire,” he says.
One example at Nowon is a wok-fried jjajang clam dish, inspired by Korean-Chinese noodles in black bean sauce, with the advent of brown butter and lemon ($16). “In Korean-American culture we often say, Americans aren’t gonna like our black bean noodle dish,” he says, noting its monochromatic, brown, and blobby appearance.
“I think now is the time for Korean cuisine,” says Lee. In just the past few weeks, hot new Korean restaurants like Kochi and Jua have entered the fray. “We’re really getting notice and on the come-up, and we have to be really proud of what we do,” he says. For one thing, that means using Korean names for ingredients, like yuja, a citrus that many Korean places still call by its better-known Japanese name, yuzu.
To accompany Lee’s food, Nowon will serve beer, natural wines, and soju cocktails (a liquor license is still pending). The dimly-lit restaurant space, decorated with graffiti and murals from the artist Razo, will reflect its East Village environment.
Nowon is open from 5 p.m. to 12 p.m. daily, with brunch, delivery, and reservations to come.