Kjun is one of the most fun dinners you can have in New York right now.
From behind a cozy counter with a handful of tables set under old Jazzfest posters, chef Jae Jung is turning out delicious and personal combinations of Korean and New Orleans cuisine. There are japchae boudin balls, okra kimchi, and gumbo that is better than many I’ve had in the Crescent City, as well as seasonal specials like crawfish jambalaya and soft shell crab po’boys. But one of the best things on the menu isn’t the food. It’s a cocktail: Or really, the cocktail a server can make for you, if you provide your own booze.
I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of BYOB. On one hand, it provides the freedom to drink what I want, and potentially save some money. On the other, I’m no wine expert, and too often I’ve chosen some $14 bottle of pinot grigio with a cute label (and likely because it was one of the few already-chilled options) only to be left dining with a sour, bland pairing that sucks the life out of an otherwise delightful meal. But Kjun (154 E. 39th Street, near Third Avenue) offers a collaboration with its BYOB policy — for $35, a server will combine any bottle of wine with its sangria mix, a combo of fermented plum, strawberry, and other seasonal fruits.
I didn’t know about the sangria mix the first time I went in June, armed with some bottle my friend and I had picked up at a store around the corner. We were ready to take our chances with what was on the shelves on Lexington Avenue when our server informed us there was another option. Then he whisked the bottle away and returned with the sangria in pink pebbled carafe, and matching glasses garnished with kumquat, the sangria served over ice.
The result was nothing short of a magic trick. What was once a middling wine was now a bright and complex cocktail, with a subtle fermented tang behind the jammy strawberry and fresh lime. This was no table red gussied up with sugar and orange chunks. It was light and refreshing, with the fruit standing up to the spicy, funky flavors of kimchi gumbo and soy-braised eggs. Abracadabra! A low ABV drink that paired with the whole meal.
That harmony of flavor between the drinks and the food is one of the joys of restaurants that have a robust wine or cocktail program. KJUN also offers non-alcoholic options that jibe beautifully with the menu, like kumquat yakult creamsicle, or Misugaru with chicory coffee and maple syrup. But the surprise of taking whatever wine you brought and turning it into something that belongs set the tone for everything that came next.
As you cling to the last days of the season, don’t miss out on one of the city’s best summer cocktails. Just remember to hit the wine shop first.