Traditional Korean Skewers and Stews in the Flatiron District
Servers trying to pass off a kitchen's laziness as whimsy will always tell you the food is going to "come out as it's ready," as if each small plate were a heavily medicated pop star and you were a hopeless fanboy. Don't fall for it. The appetizer-entrée format may be mostly dead (and good riddance to that old bore), but even a meal of shared plates will benefit from structure.
If you've any doubts about this, visit chef Hooni Kim's new spot in the Flatiron District, Hanjan. Much as at Danji, his Hell's Kitchen restaurant, the menu is set up with brief lists of traditional and contemporary Korean dishes, all of which are meant for sharing. This taxonomy is for the diner's benefit, but so is the careful order in which those dishes arrive, which is entirely different: cold dishes from either category first, then onto the small hot ones, graduating to skewers, and ending with larger hot plates.
By controlling the order and pace of the meal, Kim leads you through to the deeper, weightier flavors of the traditional Korean kitchen—at Hanjan, he doesn't ride out into Danji's bulgogi-slider territory, not even with his most contemporary stuff. Instead, there are a hundred dark-red shades of pepper, and the souring edge of fresh kimchi. Kim imports artisanal Korean pepper and soybean pastes to build his own version of the powerful, habit-forming condiment ssamjang, softening its intensity with walnuts as well as the customary garlic, ginger, and green onion.
Amish chickens are slaughtered each day in Brooklyn and delivered straight to the kitchen, still warm. You'll find the "fresh-killed" chicken fried in crisp boneless pieces or on a range of delicate skewers—heart, thigh, breast, gizzard—each one served with miniscule pinches of that lovely house ssamjang, and sometimes a soft golden clove of roasted garlic.The meat, blushing and richly textured, shouldn't be missed, but neither should the chicken skin, squeezeboxed together to make an accordion of tight, crisp layers.
First, there will be lighter dishes like the ggen-yip jeon ($10), delicate fried perilla leaves stuffed with a bit of salty pork and shrimp (parties of four be warned: There are only three to an order, so you'll end up sharing them awkwardly). By the time you get to the heavier stuff, you should have moved on from cocktails to drinking makgeolli, an alcoholic brew of yeast and rice. It's sweet and cloudy, just barely fizzy, and served here in big, cold steins, like beer. Gulps of it suit hotter dishes especially well, like the traditional ddukbokki ($12). The fresh rice sticks are made in New Jersey and delivered to Hanjan each morning. They're steamed first, then fried in pig's fat along with their marinade of red pepper, soy, and sugar—a sauce that reels you in with sweetness, only to reveal a more complicated darkness lurking underneath. The galchi jorim ($18), a dish of braised belt fish, reeks cheerily of radishes and bogs. The long, eely fish comes in pieces, on the bone, coated in an intense, oily sauce. Order it with rice.
Hanjan is a bit more sleek and comfortable than Danji, though it also glows with Edison bulbs. They dangle from an I-beam over a long communal table in the middle of the room, and the slate-grey walls manage a kind of urban warmth. If it's after 10 o'clock, you can finally order the simple ramyun ($18)—it's made with a 12-hour broth of fish, pork, and chicken bones, while the noodles, frizzy and elastic, come from Totto Ramen, Danji's neighbor in Hell's Kitchen. The muscular soup can take the edge off if you've been drinking, but it's not the sort of obscenely fatty and complicated ramen that commands your full, immediate attention. If it recalls a great bowl of instant ramen, it's because Kim found his inspiration from Shin Ramyun, one of Korea's favorite big brands.
Kim's kitchen is sophisticated, but he isn't aiming for haute cuisine. Hanjan is a wee, rackety tavern where you can rip hot chicken hearts off a stick and drink, drink, drink. Sometimes it pays to let the kitchen do the thinking.
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