Classic Korean food gets a youthful, modern update at this low-key restaurant in the East Village. Don’t let the size of the space fool you though; Oiji has just started doing big things with Korean cuisine.
A few months ago, I celebrated a friend’s birthday at a BYOB, all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurant on a particularly fishy-smelling stretch of Grand Street. There was a lot of meat thrown on the flames, a lot of light beer passed around the table, a lot of raucous shouting between bites, and nothing really authentic about it all. It was perfect for a party of 12 20-somethings on a Saturday night, but it is not somewhere you would want to catch up with an old friend, and certainly not somewhere you would take a date.
But if you’re in the mood for Korean food on a weeknight, where would you take a date? That $85 Asian-fusion tasting menu in Midtown is too expensive, and Seamless doesn’t give you nearly enough options to make settling indoors worth it.
This is where Oiji has carved its own remarkable niche. In a cozy corner of the East Village with only two plates on the menu over $20, Oiji has created a chic, contemporary restaurant with traditional Korean classics filtered through a modern lens. The two young chefs at the helm here have taken home-cooked favorites and have updated them with energy and deference. The result is, for the most part, Korean food that is fun, exciting, and still honestly authentic.
Especially impressive is the Fried Chicken with a light, spicy soy vinaigrette. The crisp surrounding the tender dark meat is paler and airier than most fried exteriors, emphasizing a suprising lightness across the entire dish.
With creamy, buttered rice, a soft boiled egg, large slices of cooked mushrooms, pickled radish cubes, and braised beef filling a big, comforting bowl, the "Jang-jo-rim" is another rewarding adaptation of a Korean classic, but here the chefs have restrained their use of salt and spice, allowing the ingredients to properly shine on their own. The leanness of the beef also tempers the richer, fuller experience of the yolk that swirls around to coat the rice in yet another buttery flavor for an experience more attuned to our modern demands from sophisticated cuisine.
Another success is the Mackerel, smoked with pine leaves and paired with a light citrus soy sauce that is brushed onto the crackling skin of the fish with a little broom of whole pine needles. While the rather involved act of consuming the fish is perhaps the most in vogue aspect of the menu, the dense white meat is sensationally soft and aromatic, chewy and creamy in all the right places.
Less successful are the beef tartare with ramp aioli, whose heavy dose of sesame oil overwhelmingly masks the more delicate flavors beneath, and the slow-cooked pork belly and kimchi. Though the spicy, vinegary broth of the kimchi is excellent, it is not enough to balance the thick, fattier squares of undersalted pork. But when a meal finishes with a bowl of glistening honey butter chips, a South Korean favorite that the chefs have recreated in their own kitchen, the minor misfires can go unnoticed. The thin potato crisps here take on an almost ethereal nature, having been coated with honey, brown sugar, and cayenne, a texture that doesn’t seem quite possible for a chip. It becomes impossible to just have one bite.
Oiji is still a new restaurant, but as the chefs continue to innovate and add to their creative menu of elevated Korean small plates, it will only get better. For now, let’s grab a date and embrace this new frontier in Korean food.