“Maybe we have set too high a standard for Korean restaurants,” my wife Jun pondered while we were waiting for dishes at Soogil, a new restaurant in East Village from chef Soogil Lim, who spent his time at Daniel and Hooni Kim’s Hanjan before striking out on his own. I responded, “Maybe, but that is because we know taste of our mother country better than any other cuisine.” In thinking about my past experiences at these so-called “modern” Korean restaurants, which had been admittedly mixed to say the least, my least favorite places had been those that strayed too far from the essence of what Korean’s food represents and tried to cater to the non-Korean diners who have only eaten Korean BBQ before. One Korean chef that I wasn’t quite sold on but eventually grew on over time is the aforementioned Hooni Kim, whose Hanjan and Danji show a creative side of Korean dishes in an appealing manner without suffering from the same downfall that I see too often at other places. After dining at Soogil, I am happy to report that chef Lim’s cooking also shares that attribute.
Soogil holds itself out as a Korean restaurant that blends in French cooking techniques and ingredients, and it shows in menus where you see dishes using foie gras which is foreign in Korean culinary tradition. What I particularly liked about Soogil, however, is the focus to the clean and refined flavor of successful Korean dishes, in a small-dish format ideal for sharing among multiple diners (most dishes were priced at $20 or below). Jun and I have had dozens of mung-bean Korean pancakes by now, but we were both surprised with the earthy sensation of the one at Soogil that was quite aptly deep-fried in pork fat. What we also didn’t expect was the addition of kimchi sprout salad on top, which is by the way not how traditional pancake are prepared, which turned out to bring another layer of flavor and texture to the pancake that was quite pleasant. While the plating of an ingenious grilled Spanish pickerel on top of Swiss chard-wrapped rice looks more French than Korean, the flavor from the more or less perfectly grilled mackerel and the rice with ssamjang (a thick spicy paste typically used when wrapping rice and other food in lettuce or other vegetables) in the wrap was unmistakably Korean, and a very good one at that (the only complaint, a very minor one, from Jun was that she wished the ssamjang were served on the side so she can control the level of seasoning). Not all dishes were as impeccably prepared. Jun and I both wished the poached monkfish with lobster sauce and sautéed spicy vegetables spared no expense to make it spicier (in Korean tradition, the same monkfish stew dish that inspired the one at Soogil tends to be quite spicy that adds a nice kick to your taste bud), and also thought the soy braised short rib with root vegetables (shockingly, both of us forgot to take the photo of the dish!) could’ve been a little bit richer in flavor, even though the meat itself was competently prepared at a nice level of texture. Still, after devouring the playful and insanely delightful jenga tower dessert (consisting of fried doughs with green tea powder and honey chestnut gelato), we had no issue giving a high praise to chef Lim’s approach to his cooking. If you have room for dessert, definitely give this dish a try; it looks like a dessert that you are more likely to encounter at a French patisserie, but the use of misugaru, a powdered grain and bean that Jun and I used to drink after mixing up with water, reminded us a lot of our childhood days.
Soogil has a typical East Village modern Asian dining space that is small, cute and cozy (I would say it is a smaller version of Hanjan); that also means that you may have trouble getting seated on a walk-in basis, so try to book reservations in advance. Our chef friend who visited the restaurant advised us to stay away from cocktails (a wise advice, it turned out, as I couldn’t find anything special about the watermelon cocktail that Jun ordered), so complement your meal with traditional Korean drinks like sojus and makgeolli (rice wine). I’m intrigued to see how Soogil’s food evolves over time. Not all dishes were perfect, but there are some promising signs that this restaurant could be as beloved by Korean and non-Korean diners alike as other places that had opened the past several years such as Danji, Oiji and Atoboy (OK, admittedly my experience at the last one was mixed). When we have an opportunity to introduce non-Korean friends to Korean food, Soogil will definitely be one of the restaurants I will consider.
KenScale: 8.0/10 (Jun’s Score: 8.0/10)
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 8.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.0/10
- Texture: 8.0/10
- Value: 8.5/10
Address: 108 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003