Esther Choi, the Netflix Iron Chef finalist and owner of Mokbar — the rice and noodle fast-casual restaurant — is flipping what had been a pre-pandemic standalone Park Slope location into something new.
Today, Choi opens sit-down restaurant Gahm by Mokbar, named for the Korean word for persimmons. In addition to the new spot, she owns three other Mokbar locations: her first Mokbar in Chelsea Market, one in the Hugh in Midtown, and an upcoming location at Gateway Center in Downtown Newark, along with the cocktail bar, Ms. Yoo on the Lower East Side.
With its 40 seats, Gahm resides in a redesigned space at what had been a Mokbar location she opened in 2017, at 212 Flatbush Avenue, near Bergen Street, across from Barclays Center. Rather than reopen Mokbar here after the pandemic, she designed Gahm as a place where she can “change the menu,” “be creative,” “talk to customers,” and “cook every day,” she says. The room is more open — you can see other guests and the kitchen, yet it retains an intimacy, she says.
The momentum behind the opening is related to her run on Iron Chef: Quest for an Iron Legend last summer, which was “a big deal for me,” she says. It helped a wider audience get to know the New Jersey native and her whimsical cooking style that highlights her Korean heritage. It was here that she made dishes like a sizzling crab fried rice or Korean barbecue short rib sandwiches. It’s also where she riffed on uses for kimchi beyond banchan: in cocktails, in ramen, and in picklebacks, for starters.
This location of Mokbar wasn’t always fast casual. Back when it opened it was “cooking like a grandmother,” Eater reported, a compliment for what was then a sit-down restaurant, where she was one of a handful of young, ambitious Korean chefs around the city who were “part of an effort to make traditional Korean cooking more mainstream.” It opened with menu offerings like jip bap, a “home meal” based on braised short rib, pork belly sautéed with kimchi, or salted mackerel — followed by rice, soup, and a selection of three to four banchan. Once the pandemic began, the restaurant switched to takeout only, and post-pandemic, a space for catering and events.
With a mostly new menu compared to Mokbar, Gahm features more local and seasonal items, starting with a selection of mandu, from traditional to playful — pork and kimchi with chile crisp ($14); shrimp, bacon, and chive with golden tomato ($16); or burger mandu with bacon, beef, and cheddar. Vegetables range from a kale Caesar ($12) to a tempura salad of mushrooms, greens, and lotus roots ($18). There’s a Korean take on the Scotch egg ($13), as well as pork belly buns ($7), and tteokbokki, brown-butter rice cakes with white kimchi, bacon, pork, and poached egg ($15). And yes, there are rice dishes, like that sizzling crab fried rice from Iron Chef ($29), as well as a “smoked army stew” with chipotle kimchi and pork belly char siu ($26). In keeping with her love of kimchi, there’s a section of the menu dedicated to it, with five variations including cucumber, white, and stewed bacon.
“It didn’t feel right to go back to quick service,” she says of the space. Now, it’s a place for her to lean into what she’s working on separate from Mokbar.
“As a chef,” she says, “I’ve definitely evolved.”
Gahm by Mokbar is open from 5 to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 5 to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for now.