You probably couldn’t fit any more restaurants onto the single block of West 32nd that has comprised Manhattan’s Koreatown since the early 1980s. Sure, places have spilled onto the avenues, but for the last couple of years, most of the expansion has leapfrogged onto 35th and 36th streets. New kid on the block in this burgeoning frontier is Madangsui, a fashion-forward Korean barbecue.
The menu portentously declares “Raw Meat Specialists,” but the specialty might be more accurately described as “Grilled Meat With Lots of Fat.” (The Koreans call grilled meats “kui,” which sounds suspiciously like “cue.”) As chefs around town obsess over such oleaginous cuts as pork belly, deckle beef brisket, and pork shoulder, the Koreans are belatedly staking their claim to being among the original minions of tasty fat.
The long, wide dining room is utilitarian in the extreme, with the dominant motif provided by exhaust ducts crossing the ceiling in wood and polished tin. Look to the floor, however, and see what I mean about utilitarian: The beige-stone tile makes the room feel like a giant butcher shop. Open the menu, and the purpose of the place instantly springs into focus: Madangsui is determined to compete with American-style barbecues. Compared with places like Virgil’s, Daisy May’s, and Dinosaur, it does pretty well.
While the typical Korean barbecue regales us with itty-bitty morsels of meat, which may add up to less than a literal handful per entrée, Madangsui pelts you with meat, offering portions twice the size of similar establishments. In fact, if a pair of diners tries to order more than one kui entrée, the waitress will shake her forefinger and refuse to bring more till you’ve finished what you have. I found this unwillingness to let you waste money charming.
The list of grillables runs to 18 items. This allows all sorts of rarely seen cuts. My pals and I were wowed by the “micro thin sliced brisket” ($20.99). Brought in ceremoniously on a tray and thickly layered with fat, the bright-red curls might have been sliced on a pathologist’s microtome. While Texas barbecues smoke a thick brisket for as long as 14 hours, Madangsui takes the opposite approach, guaranteeing a smoky flavor by slicing the meat as thin as tissue paper, so every particle of flesh absorbs the smoke with only a brief exposure to flame. Eat the finished product—which the waitress will probably insist on cooking for you (it’s OK, she’s very good at it)—by dipping meat in the saucer of salt, pepper, and sesame oil provided, then wrapping it in lettuce with shreds of purple onion and scallion. A bit of kimchi or the red-pepper paste called kochujang is optional.
Leader of the pack, and first thing on the barbecue menu, is saeng deung sim ($26.99). I hesitate to spoil the surprise, but this entrée turns out to be a prime boneless rib eye, glorious in its intact entirety and gorgeously marbled. Meat doesn’t get any pornier than that. Throw it on the grill, and smoke instantly snakes upward into the surreal duct work. Take a last admiring look at the entire steak, because the waitress soon goes after it with scissors, cutting it into pieces that multiply the proportion of sizzling surface area.
Fatty pork belly (really, uncured bacon) is a Korean-barbecue standard. But every other Korean-barbecue joint in town puts a pan down on the grill and fries the belly in the rendered lard, which does nothing to dispel the barnyard flavor or make the cut smoky. At Madangsui, though, the thick slices are tossed right on the fire, resulting in enhanced flavor and reduced skank. As with the brisket, you can order the slices “micro” or “macro,” lending a pleasing scientific tone to the whole proceeding. In the case of pork belly, a further option is available: macro marinated in merlot ($22.99)—or so the menu says. When the three thick slices arrived, they had none of the wine-red color we’d expected. “Has this really been marinated in merlot?” I skeptically asked the waitress. “Oh, yes,” she replied self-assuredly. “It’s been thoroughly soaked in white wine.”
In addition to “Natural Wood Grilled B.B.Q.” (which, sadly, is an outright lie— the meat is grilled over gas), Madangsui undertakes the entire Korean culinary canon, including a wonderful seafood pa-jun (a giant pancake, $15.95) and a not-so- wonderful hwe haeng myun (a sweet toss of sweet-potato noodles and sashimi, $13.99). Still, if you have a hankering for Korean kui, anything else is beside the point.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 27, 2008