Thursday, August 21, 2008

Not Your Average Seoul Food

We knew we weren't in a traditional Korean restaurant when we walked into this East Village food critics' pick when we observed a majority of the customers sipping Martinis with their Bulgoki.

Dok Suni (119 1st Ave, between 7th St. & St. Marks Place) looked like many other East Village stylized chic restaurants. It's a quaint little space with exposed brick, small tables, and dim lighting very reminiscent of a modern bistro.

There's some Korean touches here and there. One side of the wall is plastered with Korean script that reminds you that you're at a Korean restaurant.

They started off the night loudly playing Stevie Wonder (which we were overjoyed with), proceeded to play some R&B, and were playing rock by the time we left. What I love about New York city is that customers have these options - to get Korean food at hip restaurants catering to the 20- and 30-something-year-olds like Dok Suni, or at Korea Town where the standard setting is more appealing to the frequent Korean cuisine eater and an older crowd. We first learned of Dok Suni from our friend who highly recommended this place. He said it was the best Korean food he had tasted and said the place was fun.

We were delighted when they brought out Mook, our first (free) Banchan. Mook is a jelly dish (looks like clear tofu) drizzled with sauce and green onions. The sauce on the Mook was flavorful and somewhat sweet, although we were disappointed at how small the portion was. Also the sauce on the Mook is usually somewhat spicy.

We ordered Kimchee Bindaeddeok (Korean style pancake) as our only appetizer. We love Bindaeddeok! I've tried what seems like hundreds of Bindaeddeok and they all taste so different. Some are crispy, some chewy, some spicy, some with meat, some with only vegetables. There are so many twists and turns you can make on this dish. Dok Suni's Bindaeddeok (crispy and flavorful) is delicious and a dinner bargain at $5. The only weird thing about this dish was that you couldn't taste any Kimchee and it wasn't spicy like most Kimchee Bindaeddeoks are characterized by.

One of our entrees was Deji Bulgoki (thinly sliced barbecued pork). This was a bit expensive, but the portion was not bad for the price. Most Korean restaurants hike up their entree prices at dinner time so the price was fairly standard. When I took my first bite, my taste buds were in flavor overload. As I ate my first few bites, I thought this entree was delicious and thought to myself, "I wonder why all the Korean reviewers were giving such negative reviews about this establishment?" And then I realized halfway through my meal that there was too much going on with the Deji Bulboki sauce. It was sweet, it had a lot of flavor, but the sauce was much too overpowering - it was hiding the meat itself. I had to drink a ton of water (not because there was any spice to this) to cleanse my palate of the over abundance of sauce.

Our other entree was their Bulgoki (barbecued beef), which tasted okay, but we definitely have tasted way better for much cheaper. Note the tiny horizontal plate above the Bulgoki plate in this photo. This tiny plate of five tiny food assortment is their interpretation of Banchan (side dishes). Banchan is a staple in Korean dining - whether at home or restaurant. Traditional Korean cuisine is marked by their side dishes that come served in separate small plates and bowls. Dok Suni's Banchan was not only extremely small in portion, but there was not one spicy dish. Even the Kimchee wasn't spicy. Also, Banchan is normally "refilled" for you at no cost per your request. This didn't seem like the kind of Korean restaurant where you asked for "refill."

In Korean dining, the meats are sometimes place in lettuce, along with Deonjang (bean paste) and rice (and whatever else you want in it, like Kimchee or garlic). Then you wrap the lettuce around everything, then stuff the huge mass in your mouth until you look like a blowfish. It's healthy, it's messy, it's delicious. But Dok Suni's Deonjang was pretty inedible. Deonjang is another Korean staple. They use this as simply dipping paste or spread, as seen below, or in soups like Deonajng Chigae (hot soup). But I've never tasted salty Deonjang like the one served at Dok Suni's, so salty to the point where I could no longer spread it on the lettuce.

Korean food utilizes a lot of spicy chili and garlic. At Dok Suni's, the chili peppers were more sweet than spicy. Actually there was not one spice in our whole meal. There wasn't much garlic flavor anywhere either. Dok Suni's dishes would definitely not be spicy enough for Korean palates. It seems their flavor is tailored to accommodate patrons that don't normally eat Korean food. The atmosphere along with the hybrid seasonings are a definite east meets west.

Many Korean restaurants give customers a free, small dessert sweet drink (sweet rice drink, persimmon/cinnamon drink, or honeyed water) at the end of a dinner meal to settle the palate. We were given the sweet drink in a shot glass consisting of probably water, cinnamon, ginger, and sugar. I think the ones with more of that cinnamon kick is tastier. Dok Suni's tasted a bit too watered down (odd, considering how much extra flavor they tried to put in everything else).

By the time we finished our meal, there was not one free table in this popular restaurant and we had to wait almost 15 minutes to get our check. By the way, this place is cash-only.

Okay, so the food was all over the map from good to unimpressive. But one great thing about Dok Suni is that you don't leave here smelling like bbq meat like many other Korean restaurants since there are no grills on this table. For nights when you want to start the night with some sort of Korean food and then venture off to other places, then Dok Suni would be a good option.

If we do come here again, I think we'll probably just sit at the bar, request some Stevie Wonder, and only order their tasty Kimchee Bindaeddeok again and perhaps try their Dduk Boki (spicy rice cake), although I'm sure it won't be spicy.

Now I just need to find a place that makes good Korean street vendor style Sundae (Korean sausage) and Ja Jang Myun, which we'll probably have to head to Flushing or Korea Town on 32nd (near the Empire State Building) to get our fix. We hope to find good Korean food in New York City to match the superb Korean meals I've had in Los Angeles.