Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) -- Chef Hooni Kim likes to keep everything brief at Danji, his terrific but tiny modern Korean restaurant in Manhattan’s Theater District.
The dinner menu, all 20 items plus their descriptions, would only fill 7.3 tweets.
The place has just 36 seats, many at the communal counter. There are no entrees in the traditional sense and although there is dessert, servers are likely to drop the check before you ask for sweets.
Every item is a small plate and meals can last under an hour. No dish exceeds $18. Our party of five ate well and drank well for $200.
Start with bulgogi sliders, a riff on Korea’s classic soy, sesame and garlic marinated beef. Kim, a veteran of Daniel and Masa, takes brisket, roasts the heck out of it and plops it on a mini pain de mie bun.
Sriracha-spiked mayo adds heat to the sweet-salty mixture. It crumbles into a fatty, gelatinous mouthful of Asian-American flavors.
Fried tofu rolls, with just a gentle crunch, are what vegans dream of when they crave mozzarella sticks. A douse of ginger scallion dressing zings the neutral pillows.
Danji is a much needed reprieve from Midtown’s ubiquitous oil-doused Mediterranean restaurants. It’s also a low cost alternative to the other high-profile Korean restaurant of the moment -- the $125 per person Jung Sik in TriBeCa. That place has tablecloths and comfortable chairs. Danji does not.
Bartenders fill a carafe half full with sweet-potato soju (a distilled drink that’s stronger than sake, weaker than vodka) and mix it with ginseng-infused rice soju. A single order ($15) will scrub your tongue of spice throughout the meal.
Now you know what to drink with the “DMZ” ramen, Kim’s hat tip to the 38th parallel. The soup, a combustible mix of fermented kimchi, SPAM luncheon meat, pork belly and hot dogs, heats up noodles just enough to let them soak up the juices.
Kim takes a less smoky approach to barbecue than his neighbors in Koreatown, slow cooking short ribs till they fall apart with the tap of a chopstick. Wash down the traditional soy and mirin braise with a flinty, structured Alsatian riesling.
Work In Progress
Danji is still something of a work in progress, and that’s okay given the prices.
Does Kim’s yellowtail with jalapeno have that same signature sting as at Gari? No, but the fish has a fresh oceanic oiliness.
Korean fried chicken is famous for its addictive, phyllo-like crust. Here, the so-called “KFC” wings are closer to any respectable version around town.
Bossam, braised pig with cabbage wraps, doesn’t have the same chewy skin as Momofuku’s $200 version -- hardly a deal breaker since the sharable dish is $18 here. Avoid pork belly buns, whose natural high-fat levels are sent into overdrive with a slick of mayo. And kimchi paella is unappealingly mushy.
And yet beef tartare, sold-out on three of four visits, is one of the city’s best. Toasted pine nuts, sesame oil and pear add sensuous fruit to a dice of raw beef.
Ask a server whether you should order dessert and he shakes his head. Take his advice.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: All dishes $18 or under.
Sound Level: Can get loud, around 75 decibels.
Date Place: Yes, for a quick first date at the bar.
Inside Tip: Bulgogi sliders are a must on every visit.
Special feature: Killer short ribs, beef tartare.
Will I be back? Yes.
Danji is at 346 W 52nd St. Information: +1-212-586-2880 or http://www.danjinyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.