When Seoul’s Jungsik opened a New York spinoff late last year, the prix fixe menu was $125, the same price as the three-Michelin starred Eleven Madison Park. Bold move.
I recall a relatively empty dining room in September. Jungsik quickly balked, sort of, lowering its five-course menu with lobster to $122, a paltry $3 discount. Not bold enough.
The bland, buillon-poached crustacean sits in a puddle of butter and cream finished with raspberry coulis, and that’s exactly what it tastes like. Lobster dessert.
To be fair, non-lobster diners get a slightly steeper $10 break, down to $115. Three dishes without dessert cost $80.
But prices aren’t necessarily the chief issue here.
New Yorkers have open minds and deep wallets when food, whether traditional or inventive, is immaculate. That explains why a $100 Korean-fried chicken lunch in the East Village books up 30-days out.
You can assemble a lovely enough meal at Jungsik if you choose carefully. Still, the restaurant isn’t operating at the level of other ambitious spots serving better fare for less.
Take galbi, South Korean short ribs. They reach their apex at the Michelin-starred Danji, where a soy-sugar marinade renders the beef into tender, sweet bliss ($14). Here, the forgettable Wagyu version is covered in a one-note sauce, the final savory course in a dinner for two that cost over $450 after wine, tax and tip.
Jungsik redeems itself with “red pepper soy” black cod. The fish rivals the best miso-marinated versions around town (sorry, Nobu), with silky flesh that dissolves in the mouth like meringue.
Foie gras aficionados will dine well too, as chef Jung Sik Yim coats the soft mousse with apple gelee for delicate acidity. He also folds the duck liver into an arborio risotto. All the flavors pop and the result tastes expensive and delicious.
You will eat these dishes in peace. The owners have invested in a civilized environment, with cushy white banquettes, sedate brown walls, tablecloths and a rotating display of Korean art (a hat tip to Chanterelle, famous for displaying menus illustrated by Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel and others in these same quarters).
Indeed, Jungsik can seem a bit too tranquil. The bar is often empty because there’s no real bar dining, and you can’t order a la carte. That needs to be fixed. (And will be, management tells me, with a la carte dining in the offing.)
With prix-fixe affairs, guests surrender the right to order just a dish or two in exchange for committing to a composed meal. But at Jungsik, the odds almost work against you, with multiple dishes that disappoint.
Dinner might begin with excellent amuses: Bulgogi beef sliders, squid-ink chips and smoked potato soup thick enough to qualify as a dip. These ought to be consumed with good Champagne, like toasty Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee St. Anne ($25).
Too bad those who go for the $75 beverage pairing get a cheap American sparkler instead (Schramsberg Blanc de Blancs).
The evening then might progress with a ho-hum zucchini salad, overcooked noodles in anchovy broth, flimsy ciabatta with no crackle or crunch and, finally, a gritty, wintery pumpkin panna cotta -- even though it’s already spring.
That’s all a heck of a penalty to pay for the stellar meat course: Confit pork belly, perfectly crisped and salted with soy foam, or perhaps the rare duck for two. Pair the former with an aromatic Muscat from Spain ($12), while the bird begs for a jammy Mitolo Cabernet ($17).
It’s a shame that a set menu causes anyone to miss out on Jungsik’s sweet uni with salty kimchi rice or spicy kalguksu, a garlicky and homey soup, an instant and soothing relief for any cold. With hit-or-miss food, the high prices and set menus will keep diners away, regardless of income.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: $80 for three courses, $115 for five courses. ($7 lobster supplement.)
Sound Level: Pleasantly bustling, around 70 decibels.
Date Place: Yes, though the long menu can last three-hours.
Inside Tip: Great strawberry cremeux for dessert.
Special Feature: Try the YuGin, a yuzu and gin cocktail.
Back on My Own Dime: When there’s bar dining.
Jungsik is at 2 Harrison Street, at Hudson Street. Information: +1-212-219-0900; http://jungsik.kr.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 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: 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.)