I’m fond of consoling bereaved friends upon the death of a favorite restaurant by pontificating, “Somewhere, an even better place has opened up.” On rare occasions, this assertion is tested immediately. Only nine months old, Okryukwan was New York’s first North Korean eatery, but even the mugwort spaetzle, rice-stuffed blood sausage, and fist-size dumplings couldn’t put it over in Manhattan’s supercompetitive Koreatown. When I cruised by a few weeks ago, it was pushing up daisies. In its place was Gorae Deung, billing itself as a seafood barbecue. The inside felt instantly familiar, perhaps because the lacquered tree-stump decor was still in place.
Soon after we sat down, kwangauhwe moochim ($22.95) blew us away. This massive salad features raw fluke cavorting in moist strips with purple onions, sprouts, and shredded carrots in a sharp chile dressing sprinkled with shichimi, a toasty spice powder. The greens include watercress and shredded parilla, an aromatic leaf with a flavor reminiscent of cinnamon. Known in Japan as shiso, the quizzical English name is beefsteak plant. These same leaves are furnished whole as wraps for other seafood, like the broiled eel ($19.95), one of the best versions of this Asian classic I’ve tasted. The eel is not filleted, but cut crosswise so it retains its reptilian appearance, brushed with barbecue sauce, and strewn with green chiles and raw garlic cloves. The meat is so rich, one serving is enough for three or four eel enthusiasts.
But though I wanted to love Gorae Deung, the heart of the menu is the disappointing “seafood barbecue.” The term is a misnomer, since most of the creatures are really stir-fried with vegetables in a pungent barbecue sauce, prepared tableside with great theatricality if you request more than one order. Typical is ohingau jungol ($15.95 per serving), which starts out in the bottom of a Teflon wok as a collection of baby squid, clams, head-on shrimp, bean curd, and vegetables with a thick dab of chile paste. After a brief period of searing, broth is added and a glass lid applied, and the mixture bubbles for 10 minutes. Ladled into a series of bowls, the result is edible, but forgettable. The seafood has turned into rubber dog toys, and you find yourself wishing it had been cooked a lot less—or a lot more. If you give up at this point, though, you’re missing the best part. For an extra two bucks, the server will squirt tons of oil into the bottom of the wok and make a kimchi fried rice out of the remaining red broth, embroidering it with plenty of nori and green onions.
There are also a few good dishes left over from Okryukwan, especially the North Korean wang dumplings ($6.95). Served three to a plate, these gargantuan dough purses are stuffed with the usual mixture of ground meat, tofu, and green onions. The vinegar-soy dipping sauce is a necessity. Also retained are several of the buckwheat noodle preparations known as naeng myun, and sook soo jae bee ($8.95), a vegetable soup served in a stone jar whose most interesting feature is flaky dumplings laced with mugwort, an herb prescribed for all sorts of gastronomic complaints. Including, one trusts, overindulgence in raw garlic and chile peppers.