Behind the scenes, a local chef recently chastised us for daring to write the line, “Chef Gary Robins is now cooking Korean at Moko.” We weren’t convinced at the time that this made us particularly evil people, but now that we’ve eaten Robin’s cooking at MoKo, we kind of get his point. Robins isn’t really cooking Korean so much as using Korean cuisine the way a graffiti artist uses the alphabet: A frame to fill in with all the technique, color, shading, expression, labor, and life-story that Robins amassed in his years as an esteemed New York chef running a long list of kitchens from Aja to The Biltmore Room to The Russian Tea Room, sort of like an East Coast Peter Chang with a sweeping range of styles. The chef, who caused a sensation over his Italian influences at pop-up Georgio’s last fall, is doing radical things at MoKo. And even better, it’s currently quite accessible in price and access. Want a look?
MoKo clearly doesn’t have the crowd it deserves just yet. One gets the strong sense that the restaurant is still trying to exorcise the ghosts of Gyenari, the mediocre Korean concept housed here shortly before making a snap shape-shifting into Moko. Those who we’ve asked in the neighborhood who are unaware of Robins’ reputation mostly assume the changes have been nothing but subtle ones. They are not.
It’s almost tempting to call MoKo The Red Medicine of Korean cooking, with its stunning, flower petal-woven plates that bring fine-dining skill to the grimy good flavors of the Asian pub and street market. But MoKo is something else, and very much it’s own beast of international influences striding in step together under a Korean sky.
Robins breaks the barrier of topping jeon, wiring it over with tangles of asparagus, avocado, and spicy greens, after packing it full of shrimp and crab meat. He re-imagines banchan as flavorful, farmers market-directed works of art and fills mandu with foie gras and pan fried duck. Scallops and pork belly share a skewer with micro greens, minted grapefruit, and jang, accented with South American aji amarillo, while wagyu carpaccio is slightly seared and scented with truffle oil, accompanied by a salad of Asian pear and arugula.
We’re yet to make it to the tabletop barbecue, given temptations like Robin’s duck confit ssam, caviar-dolloped oysters in yuzu mignonette, and an urge to try every one of the unique, locavore banchan. And then there’s the chef’s signature slow-cooked octopus, made over with black garlic vinaigrette, equally mighty in taste as it is delicate to the touch. Fortunately for the curious, the prices never veer past the occasional high of $15 per dish, whether they’re sporting wagyu, crustaceans of high quality, or delicacies like foie.
Incredible things are happening here. Even recent Korean food foe SinoSoul dubs it “the essence of all that is good, and useful, in the Korean repertoire, applied to quality pan-Asian ingredients.” Discussing MoKo with the writer last week, he put it more bluntly, but just as correctly, in saying, “That white boy from NYC is killing it.” Whether or not L.A. agrees with the man on Korean cuisine in general, we’re with him when it comes to MoKo.
Take a look at a few of Robin’s dishes in our slide show.