Can’t Get into Ko? You’d Like Persimmon Better Anyway


Lately, when 10 a.m. rolls around, I’m hunched over my laptop, twitching like a madwoman, trying to click on one of those elusive green check marks that will signify a reservation at Momofuku Ko. David Chang’s new prix fixe venture seats only 14 diners and has inspired a blogosphere frenzy of epic proportions, complete with a reservations black market.

The reservations to Ko are doled out online only, the seats for each day released exactly one week in advance. All the slots vanish in seconds—literally—making getting a reservation about as likely as winning the lottery. But despite all the hype, Ko might not be the best prix fixe deal in town.

At Persimmon, I found a dish that zaps thoughts of all other restaurants from my head: chilled slices of raw fluke, dredged in the fermented Korean chile paste and served alongside a sensationally zesty tangle of pickled radish, nori, radish sprouts, and scallions.

Persimmon has just one small room and one table. That long, wood-beamed table is lined with simple stools, seating 20 communal diners. The door is at one end of the bare, white-walled room, and the open kitchen is at the other. Your dishes might be served by the lone waitress or by one of the cooks. The setup is stylishly spare—but mainly it’s just spare. Against this austerity, two things stand out in sharp relief: the music, which seems to be Korean show tunes, and the flavors that land on the table.

Fermented miso, chile paste, kimchi, soy, sesame, garlic—the bright, potent Korean pantry deployed with enthusiasm and skill. Persimmon is the creation of Youngsun Lee, who worked at Momofuku Noodle Bar. Lee’s Momo-connection, plus Persimmon’s East Village location, prix fixe menu, mod-Korean flavors, and no-frills vibe (complete with backless stools and chefs-as-servers), might prompt comparison with Momofuku Ko.

But a few factors weigh in Persimmon’s favor: The place is usually not full, so you can actually get a reservation (always a bonus!), and the generous four-course menu is reasonably priced at $37 (plus it’s BYOB). On the other hand, the cooking doesn’t have David Chang’s experimental edge; instead, it showcases fairly straightforward but refined Korean dishes.

The menu, which changes every two weeks, lists three choices per course to select from. Some items seem to be perennials: classic Korean soups like kimchi-pork stew (jigae) and short-rib stew, as well as braised pork belly with greens to wrap it in (bo ssam, which, by the way, Chang did not invent). A meal here unfurls slowly and without precision—even for a party of two, the appetizers may not arrive at the same time.

That works out fine if you wanted to eat family-style, so that when your partner’s acorn cake arrives, you share it, and then later, when your fluke sashimi arrives, you share that too. Interspersed with the dishes you actually ordered are complimentary dishes from the kitchen—maybe because the place is new, or maybe because there’s been a mix-up, or maybe to fill a too-long lull between the courses you did order.

But the service never feels callous or neglectful; it’s just a very small operation that’s a bit rough around the edges.Best among the appetizers is that fluke sashimi, which is so exuberantly flavored that you can overlook the fact that, technically, the fluke itself is a bit overpowered. The acorn cake, a gelatinous, beige square, is brightened up by a tart soy dressing and a lively little salad of nori confetti, cucumber, radish, and red-pepper flakes.

The second course (the Persimmon menu calls it “Mid”) is where the most exciting dishes are found. One night, there were soft-shell crabs, pan-fried in butter and served with homemade cucumber and cabbage kimchi. On another night, there were fresh, whole anchovies, grilled to such a lovely crisp that they may as well have been deep-fried, and served over rich curds of tofu scrambled with kimchi. Marinated meats wrapped in lettuce (ssam) are also included in this middle course, and they are spectacular. The pork belly is particularly good, layered with satiny fat, scented with star anise, and served with a paste made from miso and salted baby shrimp. Wrap a slice of meat and a smear of miso in a leaf of lightly salted napa cabbage, which cuts the pork’s richness.

And this is the only restaurant I know where chicken can actually compete with pork belly in terms of sheer deliciousness—the chicken ssam is just as good as the pork. Juicy nuggets of dark meat are caramelized in a slightly sweet sesame marinade. Wrap the chicken up in a bitter dandelion leaf along with a thin slice of Korean melon.

After that, the main-course stews, which come in bubbling hot pots, were a mixed bag. One night, a young Korean woman sitting next to us sampled her kimchi-pork stew, made a face, and whispered to her companion that the broth wasn’t “fermented” enough. And true enough, the broth was wimpy, lacking the depth and oomph that it should have. Miso stew with seafood was better, but not memorable. On another night, however, the stews had grown a backbone, so to speak. This time, the menu featured a spicy chicken stew with chicken on the bone and an amazing broth—deeply chickeny and red with spice.

The beef short-rib stew boasted lush meat and a robust broth that tasted of long-simmered beef bones. Banchan—traditional Korean side dishes—come with the stews. The house-made kimchi was “mild, but good,” as a Korean guy down the table pronounced it. Pickled garlic cloves were also tasty. After all that meat and spice, Persimmon wisely leaves you on a lighter note, with bowls of watery browned-rice tea that’s supposedly good for the digestion (ask for the fermented fish intestines on the side), and little sesame brittles or dried fruit.

A couple of weeks ago, Times critic Frank Bruni wrote in his blog about the notion of “favorite” restaurants, noting that “favorite” doesn’t necessarily mean “best”—rather, it means a place that is thoroughly enjoyable, and casual enough to go back to over and over. By that definition, Persimmon is one of my favorite places in the city (even if you do have to endure the occasional overwrought version of “Let It Be” in Korean). For one thing, it has the novelty of being the only place where I would willingly order chicken over pork belly. For another, I can get a reservation anytime—at least for now.