The city is bursting with high-quality pop-ups right now, in part driven by NYC chefs who are striking out on their own after getting laid off from their restaurant jobs due to the pandemic. Joomak — located in Koreatown, at 3 West 35th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues — enters the pop-up fray this week from Jiho Kim, the former executive pastry chef at two-Michelin-starred Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant the Modern, and Kelly Nam, the former executive pastry chef at Stephen Starr’s Electric Lemon and Kim’s past sous chef at the Modern.
The project, running through October, features savory and sweet Korean-influenced dishes informed by Kim and Nam’s years in fine dining, scrappily whipped together in an empty Koreatown karaoke bar kitchen.
“We’ve worked in a two-Michelin-starred kitchen,” Kim says. “And then in this environment, we have started from the bottom again. This is a little bit more fun; it’s not a luxury sort of place.”
At Joomak — which means tavern in Korean — the menu’s guiding principle is that Kim and Nam are having fun with the food. A Korean version of corn elote ($8) features corn on the cob cooked sous vide with brown butter, then slathered in a paste made with gochujang, chicken stock, and more butter. The corn is then topped with a slightly spicy prawn aioli and a pile of sharp Grana Padano cheese. Kim and Nam’s take on a Caesar salad ($9) involves dried, candied anchovies and crushed bits of Kataifi dough layered with baby gem lettuce and tossed in a ssamjang dressing. The resulting sweet, salty, crunchy concoction exemplifies how the duo likes to play with texture and flavor, they say.
On the pastry side, Nam and Kim apply the same experimental edge to Joomak’s sweet menu items. The mandoo ($8), or Korean dumpling, here is served as a dessert. The dumpling is pumped full of warm chocolate ganache with crunchy Biscoff cookie crumbles added in, then dusted in 100 percent cacao shavings and served in a pool of milky Earl Grey tea. The result is a dark chocolate “explosion” in diners’ mouths, Nam says.
As an extra, free treat after the meal, the duo offers dollops of brown butter chocolate chip cookie dough imprinted with caramels made with double-fermented soy sauce.
“We’re not shy about the use of salt in our sweets,” Nam says. “The most important ingredient that we use [in our desserts] is salt, not sugar, in our opinion.”
Kim and Nam previously worked together at multiple restaurants, including the Modern and former French-New England tasting menu spot L’Espalier in Boston. After working under Kim, Nam went on to hold executive pastry chef positions at famed Paris restaurant Frenchie and Stephen Starr’s Electric Lemon at Hudson Yards. The pair partnered up over the summer after they lost their jobs due to the pandemic to sell private catered dinners to people who used to frequent the Modern.
Joomak is an evolution of what started with those private dinners, they say. But while customers paid $250 to $300 per person for Kim and Nam’s catered meals, this popup goes in a more casual direction, with dishes starting at $8 apiece and topping out at $19.
The popup takes place in an outdoor seating area outside of Koreatown karaoke bar Radio Star, which has been closed throughout the pandemic. The owner granted the pair use of the space for free, Kim says, but they are responsible for covering utilities and all other operating costs. They’ve raised some funds through a GoFundMe account and spent around $10,000 themselves to get Joomak off the ground.
The bar’s kitchen is barebones — there’s no gas burners or large commercial dishwasher in the space — and Kim and Nam have had to adjust accordingly. They’re searing the corn dish in a $30 toaster oven they bought from Home Depot, and serving all of the food on disposable plates.
Joomak may continue past October — Radio Star’s owner may allow them to use another of his Midtown karaoke bars, this one with a much larger indoor space, in the winter — but the duo is looking at the popup as a short-term step on the road towards their overarching goal of opening up an ice cream business in NYC next year.
Other chefs in the city who have had their lives upturned by the pandemic have also been favoring popups this year as a way to keep busy and try out new menus. Former West-borne chef Amy Yi built a catering business out of her Korean-themed pop-up at buzzy Park Slope bakery Winner, and chef Eric See has been popping up at Hunky Dory and Dame Summer Club ahead of the opening of his new Crown Heights restaurant, Ursula, which is an evolution of his former spot that shut down during the pandemic, the Awkward Scone.
“This popup is our [business] school right now,” Joomak’s Kim says. “There are incredible things that we are learning here.”
Joomak is open Tuesday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Walk-ins are available but reservations are encouraged due to the site’s limited seating. Reservations can be made by messaging Kim on Instagram or emailing him at the address listed on his Instagram account.
Joomak’s menu is subject to change weekly based on ingredient availability.