Butter isn’t something you usually find in Asian cooking, let alone soaked into a bowl of rice, the luscious grains waiting to be scooped up with slices of meltingly tender beef and succulent king oyster mushrooms.
At Oiji, which opened in the East Village this past May, chefs Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku have reinvented classic Korean dishes they grew up eating, adding elements of surprise, but without veering into fusion territory.
The vibe here is distinctly different from Koreatown joints. With 32 seats (plus 7 at the bar), Oiji fits into the East Village character of teeny but comfortable, with a laid-back atmosphere.
The buttered rice, for example, is Chef Kim’s take on “jang-jo-rim” ($14), a braised beef dish commonly cooked in Korean households and served as a “banchan” (side dish) at Koreatown restaurants.
When Kim was a child, his mother would cook jang-jo-rim whenever he was sick, adding in a stick of butter to make it extra comforting. Kim has brought that comfort to Oiji’s version, where cooked rice is first mixed with butter and chilled, then toasted with more French butter and beef braising liquid—a mix of beef stock, sugar, and soy sauce—just before serving. The rice is topped with some mellow pickled radishes and that luscious beef. The end result is so intensely rich you feel like you could immediately drift off into a satisfied sleep (and perhaps dream of eating more buttered rice).
Before coming to the United States, both Kim and Ku had worked office jobs in South Korea, sustaining their culinary interests in their free time. Kim traveled around the world, seeking out delicious fare, while Ku helped operate his family’s 60-year-old restaurant in Seoul.
Then both men decided to take the leap and study at the Culinary Institute of America, where they met as roommates five years ago. They dreamed of opening their own restaurant that would update Korean cuisine to make it more approachable to New Yorkers, while preserving traditional flavors.
“Brian is more artistic and he’s good with the visual presentation. I focus on the harmony of flavors. So both our strengths work together,” Ku said. After graduation, Kim and Ku worked at Bouley and Gramercy Tavern, respectively, before they began making plans for their own restaurant.
They spent two years developing their recipes and perfecting the dishes on Oiji’s concise menu. The chefs eventually opted for a small plates format, to give diners the opportunity to sample a variety at each meal, said restaurant General Manager Maximilian Soh.
The chefs’ French training shows in dishes like the Truffle Seafood Broth with Sizzling Crispy Rice ($20). It’s their riff on a Korean-Chinese seafood stew, “haemul (seafood) nurungji tang.” “Nurungji” refers to the layer of scorched rice that is usually left at the bottom of the cooking pot after boiling. Here, the chefs add Italian black truffle to the spicy broth to give it body, then pour it over their version of nurungji—squares of crispy rice that are dehydrated then fried—and a medley of sweet, briny mussels, squid, and shrimp. All those ingredients soak up the silky-smooth broth. The Korean flavors are there, but muted.
With the Pine Leaves Smoked Mackerel ($14), too, the chefs transform the fish from the typical grilled treatment in Korean cuisine. Instead, they cold smoke the fish under a bed of wood chips and pine needles, and then broil it before serving. It’s like mackerel and smoking were made for each other; the fish gains a roasted flavor that lingers long after you’ve swallowed, enveloped in a faint citrus fragrance from the black pines. The fish is served with a yuzu-soy-sauce to enhance the flavor.
And in their Cold Buckwheat Noodles with Preserved Spring Ramps ($14), they incorporate into the broth a batch of local ramps they stored since last spring using the Korean pickling method “jangajji.” The ramps were pickled for more than a year in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar, and vinegar, lending an acutely tangy bite to the vegetable’s clean, quasi-leek, quasi-garlic flavor. There’s a Zen-like purity to the dish that’s rarely found in the intensely seasoned foods of today.
On the more indulgent side, there was the Fried Chicken with Spicy Soy Vinaigrette ($15), featuring a thin, katsu-like crackly batter. The chicken isn’t as heavily flavored as your usual Korean fried chicken, but again, the departure here is a good thing. Oiji’s version doesn’t overwhelm you, instead saving the intense seasoning for the dipping sauce. The batter’s definitive crunch seals the deal, while thin slices of fresh leeks served underneath the chicken give it extra brightness.
For dessert, the honey butter chips ($6) are not to be missed. Indeed, the combination of honey, butter, and cayenne pepper is dangerous. Soh explained that the snack generated a nationwide food craze when it was first introduced in Korea, leading to shortages and a chips black market. Kim and Ku knew they wanted to make their own version for Oiji’s opening party, and the trendy treat soon found its way onto the menu.
As you chew on the sticky yet crispy chips, the flavor progresses from savory to sweet to rich. They make for a novel ending to the meal.
For drinks, Oiji also has a strong menu of soju cocktails, like the Genie Dream of Summer ($15), with gin, kaffir-lime-infused soju, lime juice, simple syrup, and egg whites; and the Mother Flower ($15), with hibiscus-infused soju, Génépi, and Cocchi Americano, served on the rocks in a glass rinsed with mescal and absinthe.
But Kim and Ku aren’t satisfied just yet. They’re hoping to add some winter dishes, expand into a late night bar menu, and even serve brunch. Whatever the future holds, the chefs’ unique approach will keep people coming back for more.
119 First Avenue
6 p.m.–11 p.m.
6 p.m.–12 a.m.
5 p.m.–10 p.m.