When was the last time you were quoted a half-hour wait after 8 p.m. in Bryant Park? It happened to me on Thursday evening at Don Don, a three-week-old Korean barbecue restaurant that serves lots of pork and not much else. From the door, I saw servers carting around trays of belly and jowl. Further back, customers mixed soju with beer, then violently combined them with metal spoons. For the first time in my life, Bryant Park was exactly where I wanted to be.
Part of the appeal is that its owner, the chef Sungchul Shim, has two Michelin-starred restaurants in the city: Kochi, a fine dining spot in Hell’s Kitchen, and Mari, which serves hand rolls.
Don’t count on another tasting menu. Similar to Mari Ne, a hand roll counter that Shim opened last month, Don Don is more casual. “We’ve designed the space to intentionally evoke a more retro barbecue spot, similar to the ones I grew up enjoying myself,” he says. The restaurant has about 70 seats spread out over a railroad dining room. Grilling happens on portable induction burners at round tables — a little unusual, but then again so is the food.
Over time, New York’s Korean barbecue restaurants have become more specialized: There are now places honed in on duck, seafood, beef, and offal. Like the years-old Hahm Ji Bach in Flushing, Don Don is all about pork.
The menu is divided up by parts of the pig: collar, belly, jowl, back rib, spare rib, soft bone, and so on. The pork is dry-aged and displayed in refrigerators at the back of the space. A single serving can cost as much as $60, but most hover around $30, making this a more expensive option for Korean barbecue.
The best way to try them is the “butcher’s special,” which comes with a few meats for $80. Supplemented by other dishes — kimchi jjigae, red-hot ramyun — it can be enough to feed two hungry people.
It’s said that the quality of a Korean restaurant lies in its banchan, and the spread here gets the job done. There’s radish and onion kimchi, a scallion pancake, and more sauces than I could keep track of. At least one of them seemed to reappear in the restaurant’s dosirak, a Korean-style lunch box that’s prepared with a mother’s touch — then shaken like a cocktail.
This is all a bit unexpected. Shim’s first two restaurants helped stoke the city’s interest in Korean fine dining, as the rules are being rewritten. Kochi and Mari serve different food, but they have a similar purpose: They are “interpretations on modern Korean cuisine,” he says.
Don Don isn’t breaking any rules, except for maybe having too much fun in Midtown. “Our intention for Don Don is to create ... a certain culture that is very common in Korea,” he says. “Bonding over a table full of meat, drinks, and friends and family.”
Don Don is open Sunday to Wednesday, from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Thursday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.