Last night when we emerged from Lost Lectures, staged in a vast Brooklyn warehouse, it was almost 11.30. Our minds were satiated from an evening of fascinating, culturally diverse talks, but our stomachs growled from a shortage of food available at the event. The four s'mores cubes I had nibbled on did little to make a dent in my appetite. Where does any self respecting New Yorker head for late night eats? Koreatown.
West 32nd street between Broadway and 5th is a bustling collection of Korean supermarkets, bars and restaurants, along with street food carts and K-pop shops. Jongro sits tucked away on the second floor of an unassuming building, with a distinct lack of charm in its lobby and fluorescent lit lift. So when the doors opened it was a surprise to find ourselves in Jongro's dimly lit, spacious interior. The cavernous room is decorated in traditional Korean style with tables nestled under corrugated rooftops, supported by wooden eaves and pillars beams. Elsewhere we found cosy booths and wooden benches. Vintage ads and framed slogans hang from the ceiling while retro posters line the walls.
The background music features 90's K-pop hits, adding to the air of casual fun. Young men with immaculately groomed hair move swiftly from table to table, explaining the menu with smiles and gently guiding guests towards ordering platters of freshly cut, unmarinated beef. 'Always fresh, never frozen' is the slogan on the menu and Jongro prides itself on serving excellent quality beef raised on unprocessed feed without antibiotics, delivered up to five times a week. They also pride themselves on pricing that undercuts the competition outside by as much as 30%.
Since launching in 2010 the franchise has a cult following in South Korea and is planning a swift roll out in the US. This Manhattan site opened last summer and a second followed in Flushing in March. Bookings are only taken for large party private rooms and on weekends long queues can form with a waitlist managed by text.
Led by our waiter we chose two platters of unmarinated beef, kimchi stew, kimchi pancake and spicy rice cake - plenty of food for five and accompanied by a flurry of banchan (small side dishes) along with a clay bowl filled with pillowy egg custard. In hindsight we could have left out the pancake and rice cakes, dishes that did not compare with the quality of the superb meat.
Three seasonings for beef - a savoury house sauce that hinted of sesame, soy and beef juices, fine grained salt and a salty sweet doenjang soybean paste. Kimchi and sweet sliced onions marinated in a teriyaki style sauce, delicious when grilled. We loved wrapping slices of rare beef in lettuce leaves with a little caramelised onion and a dab of doenjang.
Pajori - shredded spring onions and blanched soy bean sprouts dressed in spicy gochujang (hot pepper paste) were crunchy and spicy yet refreshing. Another delicious addition to our lettuce leaf and beef wraps.
Onions softened in a sweet soy based marinade, spiked with slices of green jalapeno.
Bubbling egg custard simmered with stock and spring onions to a wobbly, silken consistency. This was reminiscent of a Cantonese childhood favourite of mine, a comforting dish of eggs similarly combined with stock but gently steamed and garnished with spring onions, sesame oil and soy sauce.
Soft glutinous rice cakes in thin ssamjang (or was it gochujang?) broth. I would have preferred a thicker sauce and chewier nuggets.
Kimchi pancake with spring onions was fluffy and crisp. I suspect it was made with sweet potato and flour but couldn't be sure.
Prime beef kalbi (centre cut short ribs), rib eye, slices of thin skirt and rolls of brisket.
The double whammy of freshly cut, beautifully marbled beef.
All our beef was expertly grilled by waiters who deftly moved pieces around the hot plate and piled them up before tapping their tongs and disappearing to the refrain "Ok. Eat."
Finally, the highlight of the night - kalbi slices grilled directly over the charcoal burner.
The kimchi stew came home with us, to serve as a spicy breakfast reminder of our midnight feast.