Anyone who has seen my restaurant reviews will know that I (as well as my wife Jun) can be rather tough on Korean restaurants due to our background. I have debated with Jun whether our familiarity with Korean taste (and therefore perhaps a higher standard than other cuisines) should be taken into account when we encounter a Korean restaurant that we didn’t particularly like, but ultimately decided that our childhood experience growing up in Seoul is part of our culinary identity that we should not shy away from or be apologetic about. Perhaps due to this reason, other than Atomix (see my glowing reviews of the restaurant herehttps://kenscale.com/2018/12/27/atomix/ and here https://kenscale.com/2019/04/30/atomix-revisit-spring-2019/), Jun and I have not always had the best experience at Korean restaurants in New York City. Enter Haenyeo, a new Park Slope restaurant from chef-owner Jenny Kwak who has quietly been one of the leading influences of modern Korean cuisine in the city through restaurants Do Hwa and Dok Suni in downtown Manhattan. Did it change our minds about the general underwhelming quality of Korean restaurants in the city? Sadly, not so much, and it was one of the rare occasions where a single dish nearly destroyed the entire dining experience.
The dishes at Haenyeo (which stands for a group of Korean women going deep into the water in wet suits to catch various types of shellfish, popularized on the southern island of Jeju) will not strike you as traditional Korean, which Jun and I wouldn’t have minded so long as they were delicious. While I am generally cautious when it comes to a “fusion” type of food, I also know that a smart fusion done right can make a lot of difference. The first starter we shared, a dish of rice cake fundido (a modern take on the ubiquitous Korean snack tteokbokki) with chorizo, was off to a good start as we both enjoyed its spicy kick that made us reminisce about our childhood eating tteokbokki. And then the jalapeno chicken happened. Named “Dok Suni’s jalapeno chicken” (according to our server, it was one of the signature dishes at Ms. Kwak’s previous Dok Suni restaurant), it was one of the items that Jun was eagerly waiting for as she is a fried chicken enthusiast. After taking one bite, she looked at me with an utterly puzzling look and asked me to try a bite. The chicken looked quite aptly fried, but it was shockingly soggy. I tried other pieces and they were more or less the same soggy mess. Jun had to ask the server if there was perhaps a mishap at the kitchen that led us to this disaster but the server insisted that it was supposed to be prepared that way. Our experience with the chicken wasn’t helped much by the other dishes. The grilled mackerel was rather skillfully done, but it was a straightforward mackerel with not much to remember about. I thought the bibimbop with tuna sashimi, uni, spicy cured cod roe, salmon roe and perilla lead was adequate, while Jun thought it was no better than what she eaten growing up at a department store food court. On our way home, we kept thinking about how our meal might have been different had we not ordered the chicken.
Getting a reservation at Haenyeo wasn’t too difficult although the dining room was nearly packed, mostly with local Brooklynites. There is full bar at the restaurant, including a high-end soju called West 32 Soju that is distilled in the local area. Out of curiosity we ordered a small bottle of reserve (which apparently was finished in American oak barrel). It tasted more elegant than the traditional soju, although it was not clear what the cucumber inside the shot glass to complement the liquor was supposed to accomplish. We did very much like the bright dining space with photos of the haenyeo grandmas hanging on the wall. Would we consider coming back to Haenyeo? It is hard to say after having one of the worst dishes of the year. There were certainly other dishes on the menu that piqued our interest that we didn’t end up ordering. We will think about it more; maybe next time when we are in Park Slope and when we have no other good options in the neighborhood.
KenScale: 7.25/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.25/10)
- Creativity: 7.5/10
- Execution: 7.5/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 7.5/10
- Texture: 6.5/10
- Value: 7.0/10
Address: 239 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215
Telephone: (718) 213-2290