Since Esther Choi completed her culinary training at the Institute for Culinary Education, she’s been bouncing around kitchens here in the city, cooking at places like ilili, La Esquina and the Food Network. But her heart lies in Korean food. “I grew up with my grandmother making Korean food my whole life,” she explains. “It’s very dear to my heart. It’s not only about the food, but who I am as a person — it’s about my family and culture. My grandma’s my biggest inspiration; she taught me everything I know about Korean food.”
So she always knew that her first restaurant would be Korean, and a Korean restaurant is precisely what she opened two weeks ago in Chelsea Market: Mŏkbar (75 Ninth Avenue) — Korean for “eat bar” — is a takeaway shop that’s slinging bowls of Korean ramen.
Choi wanted to use ramen as a vehicle to share Korean flavors with New York and, since Chelsea Market gets plenty of tourist traffic, the rest of the world. “Korean flavors are semi-new to New York and to America,” she says. “I wanted people to try the flavors and fall in love with them. Ramen was one of those things that people can feel more comfortable eating, so they’ll try new flavors.”
Her soups and sauced ramens are flavored with kimchi, pork and spicy tofu, black bean sauce, or shitake, and each is based on a traditional Korean dish. And because she’s obsessive, she says, she’s making all of her kimchi in house, which is a rarity for New York Korean restaurants, most of which outsource the fermented vegetables. Doing it herself, though, allows Choi to offer seasonal kimchis like radish, cucumber, Swiss chard, and kale.
At lunch time, Mŏkbar is takeout-only, which Choi says is meant to reflect how ramen shops actually are in Asia. “Ramen is now so popular in New York that people have to wait two hours for it,” she says. “I think that’s crazy. In Asia, it’s a takeout food. So my idea was to take that whole cultural Asian experience and take it to Chelsea Market. Everything is takeout, our pick-up is two or three minutes, and you will never wait more than 20 minutes, even if we have a line.”
During the dinner hours, though, you can sit down to a longer feast with table service at one of Mŏkbar’s 20 seats. Then, the restaurant will serve ramen in addition to a number of more traditional Korean offerings, and you’ll soon be able to sip Korean beer and soju while you eat, too — Mŏkbar’s liquor license is pending, but should be in place in about a week.
After she gets this spot going, Choi has plans to spread the Korean gospel elsewhere, too: “It doesn’t stop here,” she says decisively. “My true dream is to do a true Korean bar and serve Korean food in a different, fun way. There are a ton of Japanese bars here, but no Korean. And hopefully have a more full-service restaurant in the future.”
Mŏkbar is open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily for takeout lunch, and dinner service starts nightly at 5. The last seating is at 10 p.m.