September 9, 2010

i’ve never witnessed a grown man yelp like a little girl before…

…until I saw Hooni meet Ferran Adria.

Ferran Adria, chef of elBulli fame, came to Harvard (where I’m studying public policy.  Yes, a subject far removed from food, I know) to give a public lecture with Jose Andres, with Harold McGee sitting at the table with them. Andres, the guy who has several highly rated restaurants in DC and is all about molecular gastronomy, pretty much came up to Cambridge to serve as Adria’s translator for the entire night. I scored these highly coveted and limited tickets by chance and of course invited the only guy I know who cooks to see these food icons in person.

Ferran Adria is teaching a course this semester at Harvard (for undergrads only, which is totally unfair) titled “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to the Science of Soft Matter” — featuring guest chefs like Wylie Dufresne of wd-50, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill.  To expand the wealth of knowledge beyond the undergraduate labs, there are several public lectures scheduled to be given by these guest chefs, but this event headlined by Adria, Andres, and McGee required tickets reserved in advance.

Adria showed the audience a few cool tricks and talked about his restaurant, but the highlight of the evening was simply hearing him speak of his affair with food as a daily journey of curiosity and emotion.  You could tell that food was more than a profession to him — it was a special treasure that he was (and is) willing to share with the rest of the world.  Not a lot of chefs are willing to reveal even a shred of their tradecraft, but Adria is closing his Michelin three-star restaurant for two years to devote his time and energy into a non-profit foundation in which younger chefs can be challenged to create new dimensions — and the next future — of food.

Spanish beer was freely flowing while the two chefs signed books immediately after the event.  Being impatient New Yorkers, we quickly stood in line to get autographs and were successful in getting the fourth spot in the queue of groupies.  I swear, I’ve never ever seen a grown man giggle with excitement like that before.  The last time I was ever that giddy was when I met Nick Lachey (98 Degrees fan here, I grew up in the boy band-era) at a club in the Meatpacking District and told him that I was his fan ever since their “Invisible Man” days.

Anyway, Jose Andres perked up with excitement when Hooni took his Danji business card out to get it autographed by them.  He asked what modern Korean food was, when the restaurant would open, and whether Hooni could give him and Ferran Adria a tasting when they come to NY in a month.  Andres is going to open a Chinese-Mexican restaurant in Vegas next and was serious enough to tell his executive assistant to be in touch with Danji.

Pretty cool, eh?

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September 2, 2010

welcome to hell’s kitchen

Definition(s) of HELL’S KITCHEN
noun

1. Region in western Manhattan encompassing 34th to 57th street, zip codes 10019 to 10036

2. Danji’s neighborhood

Origin: Wikipedia isn’t even sure how the name “Hell’s Kitchen” was created to describe the gritty area inhabited by Irish, Italian, and Puerto Rican immigrants way back in the day.  It is said that a gang, tenement, local dive, and slum in London all took on the name in as early as the 1880s, so basically no one has any idea of its origin whatsoever.  It was pretty much always a shady area up until Giuliani cleaned up the streets as mayor of New York.

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Today, Hell’s Kitchen is gentrified (like almost every other corner of Manhattan).  While it’s lacking good food in general, there are a few very well-established restaurants that have been around for ten years or more.  What makes this neighborhood good for Danji is that it is on the border of big corporate offices, expensive condos and apartment buildings — a result of a sudden real estate boom, um, before 2008.  Its diverse, local community naturally caters to the yuppie crowd.

A few of Danji’s neighbors (with my personal commentary):

(1) Therapy – A gay bar right next door that was slamming almost a decade ago and regaining in popularity today.  It’s been around for a long time.
(2) Yakitori Totto – A really, really good yakitori place.  Older sibling of Totto Ramen (see numero 3).
(3) Totto Ramen – I don’t know what it is about Japanese ramen shops but there are always lines out the doors to these places.  This place was no exception.
(4) Wondee Siam – Authentic, spicy Thai food.
(5) Xai Xai – One of my favorite places in the neighborhood.  A South African wine bar… mmm.

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More press for Danji, this time in the NY Post:

Danji: Contemporary takes on Korean tapas from a chef who honed his chops at Masa and Daniel (346 W. 52nd St.; October).

August 30, 2010

and the ball starts rolling (again)…

Danji’s permit was finally issued on Friday… a ten-week construction plan should be launched around September 7.

That’s not all — the restaurant now also has a phone number: 212-586-2880.

August 24, 2010

bad news, great news

I have bad news and good news for you all.  I’ll start with the bad because I love saving the good for last — like the time I made a bag of Halloween candy last me a whole year (because my mom forbade junk food from the house otherwise) and I made sure to purge all the licorice-flavored jelly beans out of my stash first.

Bad news: Day 1 of demolition started last Wednesday, assuming that the permit for construction would be approved on the same day.  That permit… is still nowhere to be found.  Actually, aside from a few issues (yet again) plaguing the process, the permit should be issued by this afternoon.  Day 2 of demolition will resume hopefully today or tomorrow.

What was the issue?  Basically, the building Danji will be residing in has a number of rent-controlled tenants.  Because of that, the NYC Department of Buildings (DOB) requested the filing of anti-harassment paperwork stating that the landlord is not forcing the tenants out of their space.  This required an examiner to swing by and check things out, further complicating matters and stretching the time passed before the start of demolition.

Great news: Danji is included in two fall dining previews, a.k.a. this restaurant is really happening and word is starting to spread!  It’s interesting to note that of all the restaurants featured in NY Mag, Danji is the only one that is a first venture.

Metromix NY says:

Daniel/Masa vet Hooni Kim will open this 33-seater that will serve a mix of traditional and modern Korean cuisine, served up as small plates. The restaurant’s name refers to Korean clay jars used to store food items like kimchi or condiments, and the interior is appropriately inspired by hues found in a pottery studio. (October)

New York Magazine describes Danji as:

Modern and traditional Korean small plates from a veteran of Daniel and Masa.

Both descriptions include the word “modern” in it and I have always wondered what “modern” Korean food really means.  Is it “Korean” food, with spices toned down for non-Korean tastebuds?  Does it mean strips of bulgogi slapped onto a soft corn tortilla and topped with cilantro?  I’ve eaten at “fusion” Korean places (PS: I hate the word “fusion” — it sounds so fake) and have always been disappointed to the point where I regretted not visiting the local pizza joint instead.

In any case, I hope Danji can serve as the future benchmark for modern Korean food, as a restaurant that remains faithful to its Korean character, spices and all.  I don’t see why not, as this two-year-old toddler on YouTube proves that anyone can love — and be protective of — something as spicy as kimchi.

August 13, 2010

“patience is a virtue” — or so they say

Progress updates: things are moving slowly.  A little too slowly for me, but apparently there are always delays in this game.  I thought the interior would be demolished by the time I returned from Korea, but there have been interruptions pushing that schedule back yet another few days.  By the next post, I should be able to take pictures of half-naked men tearing the place apart for you all.  There are also no updates regarding the liquor license application… yet.

I could sense the team’s frustration for having had to deal with various snafus during the process in the past few weeks, but they have definitely been forced to learn the art of patience.  To throw me a bone, the good people at Danji gave me a rendering of what the restaurant could look like when it opens this fall.

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In other news, there have been several articles highlighting Korean (and Korean-style) food recently:

– The Wall Street Journal talks about how “Seoul Becomes a Foodie Destination” through chefs who trained overseas and returned to open restaurants in Korea, upscale/reinvented Korean cuisine (such as risotto with a dwenjang paste base), and star allure.

– The NYT explores Korean-style tacos becoming the latest trend nationwide in the United States, especially in the food truck business.

– Last, but not least, South Korean media capture rapper Kanye West and his entourage dining at a local Korean restaurant near Naksan Beach, where he performed at an annual summer beach concert last week (Source)


August 12, 2010

Korea

What a whirlwind of a trip!  Two weeks and three days of jet lag later, I’m finally back in the swing of things in New York.  And what a short summer it has been, ever since I moved back up here from DC in early July.  Oh right, did I forgot to mention that DC is where I have been in the past seven years?

Anyway, I spent the last two weeks in Korea.  South Korea, in case you’re wondering which one… but then again, if you’re reading this blog you hopefully aren’t wondering.  A big deal because I haven’t been in eight years (when I was a doe-eyed 17-year-old girl).  A lot has changed in the last decade.  I didn’t even know where to go when I stepped off the plane; the neighborhood where all the cool people hang out seems to change every year.

I enjoyed eating the food in Korea, but I chose what I ate.  The first thing people asked me after I came back to NY was whether I ate live octopus.  Uh, no way!  I know it’s an authentic experience, but I have too deep an emotional scar to ever try that dish again.  When I was five, my uncles took me on this short cruise/ferry ride where they serve a live or raw version of pretty much anything you find in the sea.  I remember trying live octopus for the very first time, but was so scared of it that I swallowed the moving tentacle in one gulp.  With a serious look on their faces, my uncles told me that because I didn’t chew it into tiny pieces, it was going to eat me up from my insides and that in a few hours I would die.  Ever since then, I have sworn off live octopus forever.  These are the same uncles who fed me wasabi on a spoon and told me it was green candy, but that’s a story for another time…

This time around, I had everything from vendor food, sushi, fancy Italian, Korean-style pizza, traditional Korean cuisine, to street candy made in front of my eyes.  The food was as good as I remembered, but my body tended to bloat and retain water easily after eating meals in Korea, causing much discomfort during the trip.  Basically, I would still choose my mom’s home cooking over anyone else’s in Korea.  However, I will say that the cost of eating everyday food in Korea is much cheaper that I had anticipated, especially when compared to NY.  The fanciest places in Korea were definitely up there in the price range, but for a normal 25-year-old girl with enough relatives I haven’t seen in ages who took me out to eat, my two-week stint in Korea was easy on the wallet.

My final thoughts: Koreans love cute cafes and foreign food.  An example of this was eating carbonara-flavored ddukbokki at a hip cafe in the trendy Garosugil area of Sinsa-dong (best comparison: NYC’s SoHo, think boutiques and restaurants).  Seriously, carbonara-flavored ddukbokki?

Note: My chunky camera was at times too much of a burden to carry around, especially since every day seemed muggier and hotter than the last.  So I left the camera at home most of the time, but luckily managed to snap a few pictures of the food I ate.

I know that this post doesn’t have anything to do with Danji, but I wanted to give you a glimpse into my thoughts on Korea and Korean food today.

August 6, 2010

hwayo

Speaking of the liquor license — which is still in the works – I recently received a few complimentary bottles of HWAYO, the Korean soju that Danji will be offering to its patrons. Soju (소주) is a clear, distilled alcoholic beverage traditionally made from rice. (Source).

According to its packaging,

HWAYO is a soju of a pure, deep taste, made from the finest Korean rice by the master distillers of traditional pottery manufacturer, Kwangjuyo. HWAYO is produced using a distillation process handed down for over 700 years, from the finest rice and groundwater drawn from 150-meter deep bedrock aquifers. Extracted drop by drop through a low-temperature decompression distillation process, HWAYO is then matured underground in breathing earthenware pots, giving birth to a flavor unique in its depth and smoothness.

If approved, Danji will be the first commercial restaurant to serve HWAYO outside of South Korea, importing it directly from the company. The packaging is pretty too, which is rare of the soju bottles traditionally found in Korean bars of New York.

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Sorry for the lack of updates as of late. I’m traveling in Korea (first time in eight years). Be back next week!

July 27, 2010

first informal tasting

At an undisclosed location on Central Park West, chef/owner Hooni unofficially hosted his first informal tasting to test out a few of the dishes and flavors he has in mind for Danji.  The intimate party of eight, mainly friends, enjoyed a spirited evening of food and wine.

Per Danji’s request, I will not go into too much detail about the food itself, but will say that the progression of 6-8 savory courses presented very genuine Korean flavors.  That should be translated as: spicy dishes were not toned down, causing this blogger to embarrassingly sip water after each bite.

I will leave it at that and let the few pictures I’m choosing to leak speak for themselves.

Team Danji is also starting to spread the word about the restaurant, taking its first step by making Danji’s official facebook page.  That seems to be the trend these days, restaurants putting up facebook sites before their official launch for the purpose of grassroots marketing.

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A few readers have raised questions for and about this humble blogger, the most frequently asked question being why I am writing anonymously.

As much as I am aware that you would probably feel a stronger connection to this blog if you knew more about me, I want to maintain my position as an outsider not involved in the restaurant’s decision-making process.  Talking about myself will only detract from the primary goal of this blog: documenting Danji’s growth.

July 20, 2010

…and the ball starts rolling

Two milestones were reached in the past week, granting the restaurant the green light to proceed with development. Pretty major milestones, if you ask me:

(1) SBA loan granted.  Normally, this government-backed loan is unheard of for a new restaurant in NYC, simply because of the high failure rate of restaurants.  The U.S. Small Business Administration promises low interest and lax rules regarding a guarantor, thus making its loan very, very difficult to obtain.  The loan process consisted of a lot of paperwork, delays, and tears (okay, that is an exaggeration), but needless to say, Danji’s loan was finally approved.*

(2) Design finalized.  Team Danji met with the people of crème design on a weekly basis during the past month to discuss every aspect of the restaurant.  From floor plans to fabric colors, the team pored over crème design’s suggestions and decided on a plan to replace everything currently in the space.

What’s next? The contractors will be given the design plans and the demolition of the entire place should be completed within the next two weeks.  And that liquor license is still in the works…

* However, I’m sure another delay would have produced some kind of yelling match (à la Jerry Maguire) between the owner and the bank.

July 14, 2010

the “before” pictures

The space Danji is going to fill is kind of a hot mess right now.  The demolition should start taking place next week, so I thought it would be a good idea to take a few “before” pictures of 346 W 52nd Street.

My first impression of the place was that it is cramped.  And dirty.  Even though the space has been empty for a while, it is hard to believe that it housed a restaurant before.  From the peeling ceilings to the scratched floors, it looked as if it has always been unkempt.  The loose wires, dust, and lingering weird smell made me question whether it could ever be turned into a chic restaurant.  It may have been a cozy place to dine in thirty years ago, but now exudes an outdated look that feels out of place in comparison to its modern surroundings.

I can’t wait to see what the team has in store for Danji.  Its transformation could possibly serve as a model for the pilot of Extreme Makeover: “NYC Restaurant” Edition.  A great idea, if I must say so myself…