“Except for the fact that we’re here, this restaurant could be in Korea,” observed my sensible, midwestern mother-in-law as she peered around the bustling, majestically situated dining room at Gaonnuri, which opened several weeks back on the 39th floor of 1250 Broadway, overlooking Koreatown and Herald Square. My mother-in-law has never been to Korea, as it happens. As far as I know, she had never been to a Korean restaurant before. She does not know what kimchee is, and if she did, she’d probably seal it in a Tupperware container and confine it to the nearest hazmat bin. My mother-in-law has never experienced the glories of mandoo dumplings or sweet japchae noodles or bibimbap. She isn’t a fan of red meat, or barbecue in general, and on the rare occasion that she does order a steak back home in the suburbs of Detroit, she instructs the kitchen to broil it at such a high heat that the end product has to be cut with the proverbial hacksaw.
As usual, however, there was a kernel of practical midwestern wisdom to what
my mother-in-law had to say about this ambitious big-city restaurant. With its gently thrumming disco soundtrack and panoramic skyscraper views, the modish dining room feels less like a classic Koreatown joint than like something from the set of Lost in Translation. On the evenings I visited, the tables were filled with young couples snapping pictures of their food with brightly colored cameras and parties of business folk toasting each other with bottles of sweet-potato soju. An installation of traditional Korean moon jars floats above the bar, and if you squint your eyes after a drink or two, the twinkling lights across the river in Jersey City look suspiciously like the suburbs of Seoul.
Gaonnuri means “center of the world” in Korean, and the proprietors, who are based in New York, have clearly designed their restaurant as an international showplace for what they call “authentic” Korean cooking. Within minutes of sitting down, our table was buried in a small avalanche of old Koreatown favorites, like gummy but nourishing mandu, various savory jun pancakes (we liked the nokdoo jun, made with mung beans), and fatty squares of pork-belly bossam garlanded with fronds of properly ripe kimchee. My mother-in-law, predictably, turned up her nose at the kimchee and bossam, although she made polite noises about the mandu soup (dduk mandoo guk), which contains threads of soft rice cakes hidden in its beefy depths. Her adventurous husband, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of the sesame-laced beef tartare (yukhoe) or the lava-colored yuk ge jang spicy beef soup, which he apparently took home and drank the next day with his morning coffee.
Gaonnuri’s executive chef, Tae Goo Kang, comes from Seoul, but not all of the dishes on his large, slightly overstuffed grab bag of a menu have the same spicy, visceral bite. My wet, overdressed calamari salad cost $15 and tasted like the kind of Nobu knockoff you’d find in the dining room of an anonymous second-tier international hotel. There are five versions of appropriately sizzling bibimbap on the menu (try the classic dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl), but, to the relief of the Midwesterners at the table, just one of them came with the traditional raw egg broken on top. The Midwesterners enjoyed their taste of another Nobu-style creation called black-cod gui, however (baked in miso and garnished with a dab of very un-midwestern bean paste), and after prodding it with her fork for a minute or two, my mother-in-law declared that the addictively sweet house version of japchae noodles was so good that she might actually take a second bite.
In accordance with time-honored Koreatown tradition, the platters of soy-marinated galbi (short ribs), chadolbaeki (brisket), and hyo mitt gui (beef tongue) are sizzled on table grills at Gaonnuri by fleets of genial, slightly harried waiters bearing clattering silver tongs. You can order your barbecue in a variety of pricey combinations, but I would suggest putting the grilled-protein portion of your meal together à la carte. The marinated-chicken barbecue tasted less marinated than dry and overcooked, and unlike the steamed bossam, our barbecued pork belly was devoid of any authentic porky taste. So stick to the old red-meat classics, like the tender, charred chunks of short rib marinated in “signature sauce,” the different cuts of brisket, and the pink, carefully sliced rib eye, which are portaged to the table with an assortment of pickled vegetables (radishes, carrots, more kimchee) apportioned in a jumble of little white bowls.
Gaonnuri, like most establishments below 34th Street, shut down during the great storm, but the big sky-box operation is up and running again, with a lavish lunch service and a variety of elaborate tasting-menu options for dinner. The prices are more reasonable at lunchtime, when no entrée costs over $15 (compared with $34 at dinner) and you can enjoy a $20 bento-style bansang lunch box of galbi, vegetables, and soup while gawking at the great King Kong view of the Empire State Building next door. There’s a small selection of sugary white wines (including five Chardonnays) and robust reds (some Argentine Malbecs, six California Cabs) to go with your barbecue, and if you feel like finishing your meal with a grandiose, faux-gourmet dessert, there are those, too. They include a brick-hard baked Alaska (dutifully flambéed tableside in a fiery cloud of rum) and a tea-green yuzu parfait, which my mother-in-law praised, after pausing judiciously to gather her thoughts, for its “lime overtones” and “soft, comforting texture.”
1250 Broadway, nr. 32nd St.; 212-971-9045
Hours: Dinner Monday through Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $14 to $25; entrées, $18 to $34.
Ideal Meal: Nokdoo jun pancakes, japchae noodles or mandoo, bulgogi rib eye and marinated galbi barbecue, kimchee and assorted vegetables, yuzu parfait.
Note: The bar offers galbi sliders and other assorted drinking snacks. Eat them in the northeast side of the room, with its impressive view of the Empire State Building.
Scratchpad: Half a star for the classic galbi barbecue and another half for the stunning views.
*This article originally appeared in the November 19, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.