Once it was a Chinese carryout. Now, teal blue tables, a powder blue drop ceiling, and plum banquettes–a color scheme that doesn’t quite work, according to a decorator pal–replace flaming woks. Apart from a gilded screen shielding the restrooms, the space is intentionally austere. You want visual diversion? Focus on the chaotic restaurant kitchen across the street, or the handsome hangers-on perched at the bar.
But the food at this cocktail lounge-cum- model oasis is unexpectedly appealing. Junno’s seeks to do for Korean what Nobu did for Japanese, merging Asian and Western flavors and techniques. The approach is illustrated by shrimp ravioli, three round dumplings plashed in a bright yellow pool. The sauce discovers an amazing affinity between blond miso paste and European mustard, and green herb oil floats on top like spilled antifreeze. Great, too, is a tataki of tuna that features blood red rectangles dusted with cracked peppercorns and barely seared on the edges. The tuna is laked in ponzu, a mixture of soy and tart Asian citron, accented with ginger. The Western part? Each lozenge bravely wears a fennel-bulb badge on its breast fringed with a feathery fennel top.
In fact, there are virtually no misfires among the appetizers, mostly priced at $6. Ginger braised pork alternates thin slices of meat with bright green cucumber, as neatly arranged as a new set of dominoes. “Braised” is a fib, since the pork has been steamed and pressed like a pair of dress pants–a favorite Korean technique that rubberizes the meat (it’s good, anyway). The grilled squid is also fab, little swatches of cephalopod latticed with yellow pepper and cucumber, lying in a vortex of dark miso and Tabasco.
Not unexpectedly, the entrées can’t quite keep up with the appetizers, especially an unimaginative tempura ($14), which failed to deliver the promised Far Eastern vegetables, and an Asian bouillabaisse ($12), well-furnished with clams, snapper, and mussels, but with the consistency and flavor of dishwater. But three entrées merit applause. The soba salad ($8)–buckwheat noodles tossed with julienne vegetables, shredded romaine, pickled ginger, and a sweet dressing sprinkled with sesame seeds–is a perfect but predictable summer plate of food. More risk-taking is a dish piled high with shiso-laced rice, planked Spanish mackerel, and more fresh fennel ($13), an edifice that totters in competing sauces of blond miso and sesame-flavored balsamic. Delicious! But my personal favorite would be the beef rib salad ($14), the meat served off the bone, sliced thick, and varnished with a tart-sweet glaze.
In keeping with the food-for-models theme, the selections are restrained in size and tend to be undercarbohydrated, abjuring the plate-piled-high-with-greasy-food approach of many bistros, and making it possible for you to enjoy an appetizer, main course, and dessert without paranoia. Otherwise, you’d miss a pair of incredible desserts. The first is a pear sorbet wherein the fruit’s gritty stone cells add oomph to the delicate ice, and the second a Valrhona chocolate cake in a lovely green-tea sauce, deep brown against pale green, bending the rich flavor of the cake without smothering it. Now there’s a color scheme we can get behind.