It appears that only a few short weeks after opening Osamil in the early fall of 2016, the three partners of Nomad Izakaya have another hit on their hands. At 5:00pm when Tom, the photographer for Manhattan Sideways, and I walked in, there were a few people milling about at the impressive white marble bar. By the time we left, about an hour and a half later, there was not a seat to be had upfront, and the tables for dinner were rapidly being filled.Both Nathan, the manager, and Moku, one of the owners, greeted us with big smiles, enthusiastically showing off the beautiful decor. Staring at the front mural - with 5th Avenue and 31st Street signs painted on it - Nathan enlightened us that O-sam-il means 5,3,1 in Korean. From their doorway, one can see the real signs outside. The numbers have added significance, because in addition to being on 5th and 31st, the restaurant's address is 5 West 31st.When the team first found this space, they had to strip everything down. When they came upon the brick wall on one side, they decided to sand it and leave it exposed. The end result is a checker board design that is strikingly different than other spaces I have seen. A Korean friend of Moku's did the mural on the rest of the wall. "We told him to do whatever he wanted - to use his imagination." Moonsub Shin did just that, creating a soft gray design that is soothing and beautiful.The wood tables and short stools are spread down the middle of the restaurant with a few booths along the edges. Liquor lockers span the entire opposite wall, filled with customer's personal alcohol. Be it a fine bottle of Scotch or a vintage wine or bourbon, customers are welcome to store whatever they would like in their secured cubby - for a small corkage fee. Straight in the back lies the open kitchen where Chef David Lee performs his magic. Osamil is different from more traditional Korean eateries found just a few blocks away. Here they are striving to be more "modern and upscale" while still being reminiscent of a typical Korean barbecue restaurant. After showing us around and chatting about Osamil, Nathan and Moku invited Tom and I to take a seat at the bar to await some dishes that we could photograph. Little did we realize that the presentation of these dishes would last for a delightful forty-five minutes. The first to arrive was a sizzling plate of cured shrimp, sauteed shishito peppers with broccoli rabe, and beef tartar. Each dish was presented on a unique plate as a culinary work of art. It was not long before a medley of grilled mushrooms and a large marinated lamb chop covered in a mix of herb and pine nuts were placed in front of us. While we watched Gelo, the bartender, whip up several intriguing cocktails, a 100-year-old oak board was put before us with a very large, crispy port shank. A knife and fork stuck out from the top and the shank was surrounded by a shaved apple salad, lettuce leaves, and three small bowls with an array of pickled relishes. Once Tom had finished taking photos of this impressive meal for two, he was instructed to grab a lettuce leaf and fill it with meat, salad, and a relish of his choice. It was great fun and, he assured me, very tasty. There is no doubt that Osamil is off to a fine beginning.
“We were just voted the best Asian barbecue restaurant in New York,” said Philip, the general manager of Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. “We’re getting a lot of buzz these days, because Korean food is very trendy right now.” And Baekjeong, founded by Korean wrestler and TV personality Kang Ho-dong, is the trendiest of all. It is a favorite hangout of actors and celebrities, and has received high praise from celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang. At Baekjeong (the Korean word for “butcher”), meat is king. But while Korean barbecue traditionally makes use of the second-best cuts of meat, marinating them for flavor, Philip emphasized that Baekjeong uses only the highest-quality meat. “We don’t even marinate it,” he added. Between the quality of the meat and the reputation of executive chef Deuki Hong, a twenty-five year old prodigy who recently won the 2015 Young Guns Chef award, Baekjeong has become one of the hottest new restaurants in New York. The wait to be seated, Philip told me, is sometimes as long as an hour and a half. By all accounts, it is worth the wait. As customers munch on small starter dishes known as banchan, waiters prepare the meat - mainly beef and pork - on large metal grills set into each table. Another highlight at Baekjeong is dosirak, a traditional Korean children’s lunchbox filled with rice, kimchi, and a fried egg. In the seventies, Philip explained, Korean kids always shook up their metal lunch boxes before eating them, and at Baekjeong - which aims for a “1970s industrial Korea feel” - customers are encouraged to do the same. But Philip emphasized that guests who do not know much about Korean food should not be worried. The waiters, who all speak English and Korean, “make sure to cater to customers who don’t know what’s going on.” For the most part, though, the Chinese tourists and Americans who make up most of Baekjeong’s clientele (“Koreans don’t like to wait in line,”) do know what is going on.“No one just walks in off the street,” Philip told me. “The kind of people who come here are in the know.”
When I asked the Manhattan Sideways team how they would best describe the atmosphere at Hangawi, they said at once, “tranquil…serene.” I knew we would have a delicious culinary experience at this vegetarian Korean restaurant, but I had no idea how pleasant and peaceful it would be. Barely through the front door, we were politely asked to remove our shoes and leave them on the floor. On the way out, we just found them neatly placed in cubbies along the wall. We were seated at a wooden table close to the floor, but not low enough to make us uncomfortable. Silky red cushions placed on top of the wood allowed our feet to dangle. The servers moved about with ease and grace, taking orders and serving one outstanding dish after another. Sipping on ginger tea that was packed with flavor, we ordered a few different dishes—there was so much that we wanted to sample! For starters, the small stuffed shiitake mushrooms stacked on a piece of tofu with cinnamon almond dressing was so delicious that I had to take tiny bites—I did not want the pleasure to end. The pumpkin noodles with sautéed vegetables had a divine flavor and were cooked to perfection. The last item that we ordered came in a cast iron bowl with a bubbling, richly spiced broth, tofu, mushrooms, vegetables and bite-sized rice cakes. Served on the side was kimchi – both plain and with a red hot sauce. All of it was absolutely amazing. I could eat at Hangawi multiple times a week and never tire of their menu, or the “balance and harmony” that they effortlessly convey.
How is this for an architect’s resume: The Dakota (known today as the apartment building where John Lennon was shot), the original Waldorf and Astoria hotels, (subsequently torn down to make room for the Empire State Building), the Plaza Hotel, the Willard Hotel in DC and the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Henry Janeway Hardenbergh designed the Hotel Martinique in two phases: the first part opened in 1898, and was then completed in 1910, with 600 rooms in total. The intricate mosaic flooring remains intact, as does the winding staircase that climbs eighteen stories.
At Paris Baguette, the Manhattan Sideways team grabbed a tray and a set of tongs and indulged. We found each baked bread to be more desirable than the next, from the simple white loaf to the peanut crumb to the chocolate cream bread. The cakes are magnificent pieces of art. We were particularly drawn to the strawberry and fresh cream, and the chocolate and banana. A chain that originated in Korea, Paris Baguette now provides baked goods to almost three thousand stores. Although not everything is prepared in-house, the aroma alone makes it worth a visit, as does the show of people who come through Paris Baguette each day.
Besfren’s official motto is “Hopping into a pastry fairy tale,” and that is exactly what it feels like to wander into this hip dessert café. Truffles, macarons, caneles, and delicate slices of cake are displayed in shining glass cases, while customers sip on tea and chat at low tables along the wall. But Besfren and its partner company, Korean Red Ginseng, also have an unofficial motto – “traditional with a modern twist” – that perfectly captures the café’s Korean-American roots.On my first visit to the café, I had the pleasure of speaking with Min Ree, who co-founded Besfren in 2012 with his friend, Paul Park. Though neither of them had any culinary experience – Min had studied accounting, while Paul was a student of fine arts – they were determined to bring traditional Korean rice cake desserts to an American audience. After more than a year of experimental baking, Min and Paul felt that they had perfected their catering menu and their signature dessert, the chaps pie.The next step, Min explained, was to contact event coordinators and catering companies. “We brought our desserts to the meetings,” he said with a smile, “and it went really well.” Soon, Besfren was catering for the likes of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Vogue, the Grammys, and the United Nations. Most of the guests at these exclusive events had never tried anything like the chaps pie, an oven-baked, gluten-free rice cake, but Min said that “they could not get enough.” It quickly became apparent that Besfren had transformed the traditional Korean chapssaltteok, and now they needed to make it accessible to a larger New York audience.It did not take long for Besfren’s modern twist on Korean desserts to appeal to the managers of Café G, owned by Korean Red Ginseng. Hoping to expand their business and bring ginseng extract teas, powders and roots to a larger audience, they approached Besfren about a collaboration.Min and Paul agreed, and after a series of renovations, Besfren x Korean Red Ginseng opened in May of 2015. One side of the café is still devoted to red ginseng extracts and powders, whose health benefits include memory enhancement, increased energy, and anti-aging functions. But the main entrance opens onto the shining Besfren dessert counter, where customers can buy pastries, Toby’s Estate coffee, and fruity ginseng drinks. The floor-to-ceiling windows and simple interior design create a sense of space inside, and the café’s location on the corner of 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue makes it perfect for people-watching. The café is bustling at all hours of the day, but the smiling employees make sure to devote special care and attention to every customer who walks in.Sitting down with Min, the Manhattan Sideways team sipped on the fizzy Korean black raspberry chia cooler, the pink grapefruit yuza, a delicious balance of bitter and sweet, the ginger lemon tea, which was strong and spicy, and the refreshing ginseng latte. Before finishing our drinks, we were presented with a beautiful tray of desserts: The chewy, dense texture of the chaps pies delighted us, and while Nina was partial to the maple multigrain variety, Flannery said she would come back just for the black raspberry. Next, we dug into the triple cheesecake, which was made with cheese mousse, a layer of New York cheesecake, a graham cracker crust, and raw cream cheese on top. The hint of lemon in each delicious bite brought me back to my childhood, when I would sneak into the fridge and steal a taste of my mom’s cheesecake before her dinner parties. The honey earl grey cake was pleasantly light, especially after the rich cheesecake, and we all enjoyed the green tea jasmine roll cake, which was moist and flavorful. Even though we were stuffed, we each took a bite of a delicate canele, savoring the sweet, caramelized crust and the soft custard center.While we ate, I asked Min about the Besfren logo, which I had noticed scattered about the café, and even on his bolo tie. According to Korean legend, he explained, there is a rabbit who lives on the moon and pounds ingredients for rice cakes. Paul and Min decided to adapt that idea for Besfren, and their logo features two rabbit “best friends” who pound rice cakes together.With a constant flow of customers, particularly because of their close proximity to the nearby Empire State Building, there is always a buzz at the café. It seems that word has spread enough so that Min mentioned that they are scoping out locations for a second cafe in Manhattan. In the meantime Min, Paul, and their team of bakers are always developing new recipes to add to their fairytale menu of sweets.