When River Barrel opened in Greenpoint in January 2009, it served that familiar brand of New American/gastropub/global comfort food: burgers, duck spring rolls, truffle mac-and-cheese, etc. It was a safe bet, unlikely to piss off or excite anyone at all. But when the original chef quit, owner Lisa Kim started adding her own Korean home cooking to the menu. She eventually hired chef Jonathan Meyer, and he suggested jettisoning the New American stuff altogether and turning River Barrel into a Korean restaurant. So this spring, River Barrel became Mrs. Kim’s, with a menu that offers both traditional and nontraditional Korean fare. (Meyer has since left, replaced by Flavio Santos.)
The story of this restaurant is strangely heartening, because I often find myself at establishments without any distinct or unique point of view. Out trot the fried chicken, the burgers, a little something or two for the vegetarians, a gesture toward locavorism, maybe a Southern-influenced dish, and that’s that. So the evolution of River Barrel into Mrs. Kim’s—a highly enjoyable neighborhood restaurant with personality—is a bit of a marvel.
Don’t expect ultra-orthodox, Flushing-caliber Korean. Santos offers a play on the cuisine, one that’s obviously rooted in knowledge (and/or Mrs. Kim’s tutelage), but one that also includes inventions like fava beans with mint and Korean chile, a “kim dog,” and, yes, a burger. In warm weather, sit at one of the sidewalk tables or by one of the large windows that are flung open to the street and watch Greenpoint’s cast of characters go by. The menu lists small dishes and larger ones called “dinner”; it’s best to order an assortment and share them all. While you’re at it, a one-liter bottle of Zum Martin Sepp Grüner Veltliner can be yours for $32, a simple, crisp refreshment that will easily water a table of three. Alternatively, quality beer is on draft—try Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold—and the requisite pricey cocktails are shaken up at the bar, including a jokey take on an Arnold Palmer called the Tiger Woods, made with Korean tea-infused rye.
At Mrs. Kim’s, if you want banchan—the array of small dishes that usually come complimentary at Korean restaurants—you must order and pay for them. This momentary annoyance is quickly assuaged by the quantity and quality of its kimchi selection. For $6, you receive a stone slab bearing five different kinds of pickled and cured vegetables that vary day to day, save the always available napa cabbage classic. We particularly admired the sesame leaves softened in an incendiary chile-garlic paste, tasting herbal and faintly of cinnamon. On a second night, there was a cooling, crisp pile of mildly spicy celery and pleasantly bitter, chile-dressed watercress.
Some of the best dishes seem to be products of Santos’s imagination. A watermelon salad composed of the sugary fruit tossed with Sichuan-spiced cashews and lime zest puddled with black vinegar is a sweet-hot-tart fantasia, the best salad of the season. Grilled fava beans go limpid from the grill, soaked in a pungent fish sauce dressing, brightened with mint and a bit of chile powder. Even the steamed buns filled with pork belly, which you can find just about everywhere now, get an unexpected lift from a slick of what the restaurant calls “hoppin’s bulgogi sauce.” It’s like nothing I’ve encountered in a Korean restaurant before, more like a salsa verde than a meat marinade, a brilliantly green, intensely tart and herbal concoction that cuts through the pork fat deliciously.
Other dishes are familiar from the Korean canon, but with smart, subtle tweaks. Cylindrical rice cakes in a thick, slightly sweet, spicy sauce—otherwise known as dukbokki—have a wonderfully chewy texture, and the addition of raw sugarsnap peas lends the dish crunch. The savory pancakes called pajun are well-made, crisp-edged, and embedded with a mess of scallions, plus the unexpected, welcome pungency of garlic scapes. You’ll also find relatively unreconstructed dishes like insanely rich, sticky pork ribs glazed with soy and miso and Korean hangover stew (properly, soondooboo chigae), an angry red, bubbling casserole of kimchi, tofu, and some very gamey pork belly.
It’s best, though, to avoid anything deep-fried, which has a tendency here to be charmless. Korean fried chicken is covered in a weirdly puffy, oily breading, almost like poorly made tempura or those fried shrimp you get in a pupu platter. And the glaze is too sweet. Salt-and-pepper-fried squid lacked, well, salt and pepper, and were also weighed down with a leaden crust.
You know a neighborhood restaurant has hit its mark, like this one has, when you find yourself wishing you lived nearby just so you could stroll over after work and have an unfussy, reliably tasty meal and a beer. Mrs. Kim’s won’t change your life, but it will endear itself to you with its homey, punchy, exuberantly spiced cooking.