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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Korea Roundup 2011: How Do You Say Molecular Gastronomy in Korean? Junsikdang.


I visited Junsikdang, of NY Times' Junsik fame and allegedly Korea's answer to molecular gastronomy, the next horizon in globalizing Korean food once and for all.

The verdict is that while expectations were indeed high, results were mixed. I liked the main dish, a glorious pork belly slow cooked to perfection -- super soft and tender on the inside and crispy on the outside like bacon. But as a whole, I don't think it's there.


Dubbed Five Senses Pork Belly, it is meant to hit at the spicy, crunchy, sour, soft and sweet. There was certainly a lot going on, so much that the Wall Street Journal had a story on just the dish alone.

The whole grandiose thing lay atop pureed potatoes with onions and a pickled garlic leaf has become the most elusive ingredient for me to buy at a market as it's not available in regular markets but adds so much to meat dishes I'm trying to get my hands on it.


Then the pork belly slices were topped with some sweet and tart blackberry and ginger jam and pickled Korean green peppers. It was an explosion of flavors and textures but I loved the softness of the pork that (despite the cliche) really did melt in your mouth.

The dish I liked least but held lots of promise was the sea urchin bibimbap that came with seaweed, quinoa, sliced onions, green onions and to my outrage, watered down kimchi. It tasted so bland I had to tell the manager who checked in with us. Why water down the kimchi, I asked? For the foreigners, I was told. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes Koreans make about Korean food and foreigners. People, non-Koreans like spicy food too.

The less photogenic but much more flavorful anchovy broth-based rice topped with toasted seaweed was far better. More humble but more comforting.

There were choices for four courses of the meal. The other notable was the classic galbi, or short ribs. The meat was extremely well cooked (again, melt in your mouth) although the marinade was a tad on sweet side. The interesting thing was it came with fried rice cake balls that gave some crunchy texture to the dish.

The other starters were unremarkable. Beautiful, yes, but not particularly mind-blowing. There was a deconstructed Caprese salad of arugula sorbet, chopped tomatoes, basil, mozarella and some micro greens that was nothing special. The sorbet didn't work on a cold, winter day. Maybe a summer dish.


The beet and cucumber salad was an amazing architecture project and gorgeous to look at but there was too much going on so it was hard to appreciate any one element of it.

The second thing I was most taken by was its crusty bread. It had just the right amount of saltiness with the butter spread on it, it was fantastic. Probably the best bread I've had in Korea.

The amuse bouche also looked better than they tasted. Tofu in flan-like form and other unmemorable bites.




I was looking forward to dessert, where it served makgeolli cake. Makgeolli is a traditional rice wine that's recently taken on more popularity. Alas, I was disappointed.
The sponge cake did have a hint of makgeolli but quickly got soggy as it touched the crushed ice base and it wasn't a pleasant combination.
The second dessert featured spinach sponge cake, raspberry mouse and a refreshing sorbet. Lovely, right? Interesting textures, colors and flavors but they didn't blend well together.
The finale was good though. They had dried tangerine rinds tea that was excellent. It was smoky, tart, sweet and the perfect cup of tea on a very cold and windy day. I wish I could buy some somewhere. The complimentary muffins were unfortunately dry and unremarkable. I won't be running to its NY outpost but at least I won't be wondering when it's coming to LA. I didn't get to try celebrity chef Edward Kwon's cooking -- call him the Bobby Flay of Korean cuisine -- but I suspect it's overrated.

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