Back in 2017, the British car company Mini opened A/D/O: a multidisciplinary, design-focused co-working space in Greenpoint that also housed a sleek Scandinavian restaurant by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer called Norman that later closed. Though the corporation was the backer, actual cars factored little into the space itself; rather, it was an “experiential marketing” tactic that was more about bringing customers into the fold of the creative lifestyle the brand was attempting to cultivate. Shortly after, Intersect by Lexus, a restaurant run by a Japanese car company, began hosting rotating residencies out of its Meatpacking District space — even garnering the attention of New York Times food critic Pete Wells. Now, just down the street from Intersect, another car company hopes to replicate the model with Onjium at Genesis House on 40A Tenth Avenue, near West 13th Street. It opens on Friday, November 19.
Onjium is a Michelin-starred fine dining restaurant in Seoul that opened back in 2013. The partnership with the luxury car brand Genesis marks the team’s first-ever expansion outside of Korea. Unlike the two previous car branded-backed restaurants in NYC, the advertising of the vehicles are front and center here: An automobile showroom is staged on the first floor with the acclaimed restaurant tucked away, for those in the know, on the second.
The United States expansion of the restaurant is led by Onjium’s chefs Eun Hee Cho and Park Sungbae and centers around modern spins on Korean Royal Cuisine (Cho was trained at the Institute of Royal Court Cuisine, focused on the Joseon Dynasty, and is one of the few chefs — allegedly only 20 or so in the whole country — ordained by the Korean government as a “protector” of the cuisine) as well as banga cuisine (noble class cooking). Despite the growing number of Korean fine dining restaurants in New York City in recent years, the team believes Onjium will be New York’s first-ever to focus on this style of ancient cooking, with recipes that date back to the 1300s.
While Onjium in Seoul follows the tasting menu format, the New York version also has an a la carte menu option separated into categories like jujeonburi (snacks), as well as entrees and a noodle and rice selection. A separate menu will launch in the coming months centered around ceremonial tea, where, once a week, guests will be eventually able to reserve a spot in the shoes-off pavilion, a zone slightly elevated off the ground in the middle of the restaurant, distinct from the main dining room.
The original Onjium is not a traditional restaurant where the kitchen is solely focused on preparing a dish and serving it to diners. Located in the Jongno district, it’s housed in a four-story research institute with a culinary studio as well as spaces for traditional Korean architecture and fashion. Research is a big component of the restaurant, made clear through dutiful context dishes are given in the menu’s descriptions: Eoeumjeok (black cod and prawn skewers) is an adaptation of dishes served at royal banquets in the Joseon era. Meanwhile, the suranchae (a dish served with abalone, diver scallop, and snow crab), is an interpretation of a recipe from the noble class Choi family in Gyeongju. One of the menu’s desserts, the yakgwa, a honey and ginger cookie that’s easy to find these days at Korean supermarkets, dates back 1,000 years to the Goryeo Dynasty — a time when flour, sesame oil, and honey were considered to be luxuries.
While many dishes, such as ssanghwa-pyeon, a pine nut custard with a sauce made from ssanghwa tea, have also appeared on the menu at Onjium Seoul, the team tells Eater that recipes have been tinkered with here and there to account for the differences, such as the flavor of Korean pine nuts versus those more commonly found in the U.S. In another dish, Korean mountain root is swapped with easier-to-find parsnip.
Won Chung, chef de partie at Onjium in Korea, who has been acting as a liaison between Korea and New York (and who served as a translator for this interview), described the experience as unique from other ventures for several reasons, one being that a humanities professor periodically educates the staff on the ancient cuisine’s history with required reading courses. Employees are known to rotate from front to back-of-house to share the stories of the cuisine from both sides.
Much like at Onjium Seoul, food is only one prong of the experience. The sprawling Meatpacking District space is designed by Seoul-based firm Suh Architects with floating wood panels made to look like palace roof shingles. On the one side of the restaurant, big glass windows look out onto Little Island on the Hudson. Another side offers views of an outdoor patio that is nearly level with the High Line. With more than twice the seating capacity than its Korean counterpart, the New York Onjium is an ambitious space that intends to showcase Korean culture through all of the fine details.
The walls surrounding the teahouse, for example, are actually open-air book shelves: the inner tier of which features Korean cookbooks and texts, while the outer layer has a more hodge-podge art and design-focus, curated by Assouline publishing in collaboration with Arumjigi, a non-profit organization preserving Korean culture. The floating library also has stools to encourage anyone who wants to stop by the space to flip through and hang out. In the new year, the restaurant will sell the ceramics, flatware, and teas used in the restaurant from its very own shop situated in the middle of the dining room.
“Traditional Korean food is disappearing...so we strenuously study the cuisine so we can protect it for future generations,” says Cho via the translator. “It’s an incredible opportunity to showcase our culture and get people interested in this kind of cuisine in New York.”