Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Gyenari (Culver City, CA)

9540 Washington Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232
Wed 10/21/2009, 07:00p-10:45p

Opened in August 2008, Gyenari is the brainchild of two Korean partners, Danny Kim and William Shin, as well as Robert Benson, a veteran Los Angeles restaurateur and owner of Creperie by Jack n' Jill's (Benson was also a general manager at Claim Jumper earlier in his career). The idea for Gyenari came to Shin while he was eating at Gyu-Kaku, a higher-end yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) chain, where he noted the similarities between Gyu-Kaku's food and Korean cuisine. The goal of the trio, thus, is to present an authentic Korean dining experience with a fusion twist, all in an upscale setting.

I'd been familiar with Gyenari for a while, but this dinner was a result of the efforts of Meghan Patke, an Account Supervisor at PR firm Wagstaff Worldwide. Now, as a blogger, I get numerous emails from PR people every day, most of which only receive a cursory glance. Meghan's email, however, caught my attention because it featured Debbie Lee, a caterer turned restaurant consultant who's best known as a finalist on The Next Food Network Star. On the show, Lee showcased her signature cuisine, dubbed "Seoul to Soul," a blend of the Korean cookery she learned through her grandmother, and the American Southern style inherited through her mother. Contrary to popular belief, Lee herself was raised in Arizona and later Southern California, not in the American South; her parents, however, did emigrate to Mississippi from the Pyongyang area.

So how did Lee get tied up with Gyenari? Well, it turns out that Lee and co-owner Will Shin were actually cousins who'd lost touch for 20 years! The two met earlier this year at a Next Food Network Star viewing party held at Gyenari, and Shin subsequently asked Lee to consult at the restaurant for a few months, adding her own touches and flourishes to the menu. Some may recall that on June 25, Lee kicked off the Hatchi series of dinners of Breadbar, wherein a chef would prepare eight courses at $8 each, one night only. I was curious about trying Lee's unique brand of fusion (Mandu Sliders with Sweet Brioche anyone?), but didn't manage to make it out. I was thus hoping that this dinner would represent a chance to experience some of what I'd missed out on.

Meghan had organized a rather large group of bloggers. Joining me were Anjali of Delicious Coma, Bill of Street Gourmet LA, Cathy of Gastronomy Blog, Christine of Folie à Choisauce, Danny of Kung Food Panda, Diana of Diana Takes a Bite, Evelina/Wesley of Two Hungry Pandas, Fiona of Gourmet Pigs, Ila of I Nom Things, Sonja of The Active Foodie, Tony of SinoSoul, and Wandering Chopsticks.

Gyenari Exterior
Gyenari is situated in the heart of Downtown Culver City, right next to Rush Street and opposite Akasha, Ford's Filling Station, and Tender Greens; meanwhile, Bottle Rock, Fraiche, and K-Zo are a stone throw's away. Cheap and easy parking is available across the street on Cardiff.

Gyenari Patio
A relatively new addition to Gyenari is the outdoor patio, which features its own menu of Korean beer tavern-inspired eats, with Debbie Lee's touches, of course. This is where I met up with Meghan and the rest of the blogger party (we would end up occupying the entire space pictured above).

Soju Caipirinha
Upon being seated, a Soju Caipirinha (lots of fresh limes, raspberries, muddled lychee, soju, splash of soda) was quickly thrust in front of me. It was a nice way to kick things off--sweet and fruity, with the soju appearing just on the finish.

Assorted Skewers
1: Assorted Skewers
Once everyone arrived (surprisingly on-time, according to Meghan), plates of assorted skewers began to come out (tip: labeling a course as "assorted" doesn't bode well with bloggers). Ginger soy beef/onion and eggplant/mushroom skewers were tolerable, with the standout being the spicy pork with bell pepper.

Duk Boki
2: Duk Boki | Pan Fried Rice Cylinders in Onions and Korean Chile Paste
Next was duk boki (more usually tteokbokki), a common Korean street food. The version here consisted of garaetteok (cylinder-shaped glutinous rice flour cake) in a gochujang sauce, served with onions and hard-boiled eggs. A very straightforward presentation, I think many of us were surprised by its heat, which was fortunately tempered by the tteok and the creaminess of the egg.

Gyenari Bar
At this point, we were ushered out of the patio, through the bar/lounge area...

Gyenari Dining Room
...Into the main dining room, replete with 32 grill-tables (smokeless, so you don't walk out reeking of samgyeopsal). The room is a bright, vibrant space, sort of an industrial-chic, with exposed ductwork and rustic red brick walls, anchored by a yellow, 350 square-foot mural depicting the restaurant's eponymous blossom. A private dining room is also available.

Blogger's Dinner Menu
The menu for the night is shown above; click for a larger version. The first thing that we noticed was that it seemed surprisingly traditional. We were all expecting a "bulgogi 'n' biscuits" experience (the fusion aspect of Gyenari had been highlighted in previous communiqués), so this left us understandably flummoxed.

Cocktail Menu Drink List Wine List
As far as booze goes, Gyenari offers up a selection of wine, beer, soju, and sake, but all of us were far more interested in the appealing-sounding cocktail selection. Click for larger versions.

Jimmy Jang
After a few words, Meghan left us to ourselves, and Gyenari's Event Coordinator Jimmy Jang gave us a quick introduction of the restaurant before the parade of food began to arrive.

Pumpkin Porridge
3: Pumpkin Porridge | Toasted Pine Nuts, Soju Sautéed Dates
I believe the proper name for this is hobakjuk, basically a cold porridge (juk) made with pumpkin and glutinous rice flour. It was expectedly saccharine, with a sugariness heightened by the application of the dates; however, the savory pine nuts did help temper the dish.

Assorted Jeon Plate Ginger Soy Vinegar & Gochujang
4: Assorted Jeon Plate | Mung Bean, Shrimp, Fresh Vegetables
One of my favorite Korean foods is jeon, a broad category of egg- or flour-coated fried pancake-like items. We had three types here, served with a ginger soy vinegar and a spicy gochujang-based dip. The eggplant (gajijeon) and squash (hobakjeon) versions were passable, while the mung bean variant (bindaetteok) was much more interesting. My favorite, however, was the saewoojeon, with the scallion deftly accenting the savor of the shrimp.

Pear and Shiso Salad
5: Pear and Shiso Salad | Flashed Rib Eye, Shabu Sesame Dressing
Though the salad was seemingly less traditional than most of the other dishes, I did rather enjoy it. The meat itself was nice enough, thinly sliced and immaculately tender. It was complemented by the sweetness of the pear and the subtly contrasting tang of the "shiso" (kkaennip, I imagine), while the dressing did tie everything together (though it was perhaps a bit strong).

Watermelon Soju Spritzer Pomegranate Pearl Cucumber Gingerita
It was time for more cocktails. I went with the Watermelon Soju Spritzer (fresh watermelon, soju, sprite, and a salted rim), which we all agreed tasted exactly like a watermelon Jolly Rancher! Danny, meanwhile, chose the Pomegranate Pearl (veev acai, pearl plum vodka, pomegranate rice wine, cranberry splash); sweet with a ricey tinge, it was my favorite of the group. Christine decided on the Cucumber Gingerita (a refreshing meld of cucumber, ginger, vodka, sour splash), which was quite delish as well, with a cool cucumber attack leading to a subtle ginger finish.

Potato Salad
Baechu Kimchi Sukju Namul
Cucumber Kimchi Broccoli
At this point, five plates of banchan were brought out, so we knew that the barbequing was about to commence. The banchan were: potato salad (would've liked a more substantial texture), baechu kimchi (nice), sukju namul, cucumber kimchi (good heat, but could've been crisper), and broccoli.

Server Cooking Meat Server's Meat
Once the meat came out, our server, with a spring in his step, enthusiastically piled the various cuts atop the grill...

Christine Cooking Meat Christine's Meat
...However, Christine quickly took charge, asserting her dominance, and I eagerly entrusted my meat to her willing and capable hands.

G1 G1 Sauces
6: G1 | Gyenari Galbee, Bulgogi, Aged Pork Belly, Gyenari Flower Chicken and Japchae
We were given the "G1" combo, which consists of four types of meat--garnished with Japanese eggplant, onion, Korean peppers, mushroom, and garlic--and served with three condiments: ssamjang, a "beef dipping sauce" (soy-based I imagine), and a miso aioli. I first tried the bulgogi, or thinly-sliced marinated beef prime rib, which I found rather sweet, perhaps due to an overallotment of sugar in the marinade. The galbi (ganjang-marinated beef short rib) was better--flavorful, with a pleasing, pliant consistency. Next was the dahk gui-esque "flower chicken," made from free range chicken with a citrus-soy glaze. It was my favorite of the quartet, suitably tender, with the nice citrus tang, deftly complemented by the aioli dip. We ended with the aged pork belly, basically Kurobuta samgyeopsal flash marinated in a soju-infused sauce. It was expectedly fatty, and flavorful, but a tad sweet. It went best with the ssamjang, which effectively cut its unctuousness.

The "G1" includes japchae, which is a dish of cold cellophane noodles (dangmyeon) with carrots, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and sirloin beef, stir-fried in sesame oil, and finished with sugar and soy. Though some thought the japchae too sweet, I rather liked it, finding the dish to be a nice interplay of flavors and textures, with the sweetness proving a fitting contrast to the savory element of the beef.

Kimchee Chigae
7: Kimchee Chigae | Traditional Korean Kimchee Stew
Our final savory course was the kimchi jjigae, basically a spicy stew of kimchi, tofu, and scallions. It was a hearty, and heartwarming, way to end the meal.

Will Shin Will Shin
Near the end of the meal, owner Will Shin came out to talk to us about the story, concept, and philosophy behind Gyenari. In case you're wondering, aside from the restaurant, Shin is President of Crown Edition LLC, an electronics importer and luggage manufacturer.

Spicy Chocolate Creme Brulee & Green Tea Beignets
8: Spicy Chocolate Creme Brulee | Bacon Shortbread, Almond Cream
9: Green Tea Beignets | Chocolate Mint Drizzle
Finally, we were presented with a duo of dessert. The crème brûlée was nice enough, with the almond cream tempering the sweetness of the custard, and the bacon shortbread adding a tasty savory contrast. The beignets, meanwhile, were quite delectable, and, taken with the mint drizzle, reminded me of eating mint chocolate chip ice cream. They were even better when used to scoop up the remaining bits of crème brûlée.

Hite Tower
Now this definitely lends authenticity to Gyenari: for only $21, you can get a 100oz Hite Tower, just like at Crazy Hook in K-Town! I believe Crazy Hook charges $35 for 5 liters (169oz), so this is a pretty great deal.

So in the end, what do we have here at Gyenari? Well, the food we had was surprisingly authentic (even by the standards of Christine, our resident Korean food expert), and for the most part pretty good, albeit a bit sweet overall. Certainly, there's more to be had at the top places in Koreatown, but Gyenari does a respectable job, especially considering the location; I don't think that there's anything more compelling in terms of Korean within five miles.

But traditional Korean fare is only half the equation at Gyenari. What about the Korean-American Southern fusion? What about Debbie Lee? What about Seoulfood? Will and Meghan have stated that another dinner will be planned in the near future, in order to show off the fusion side of the menu--I want my galbi 'n' grits.


Blogger The Discerner said...

Awesome post Kevin.

Culver City is up and coming and this place always peaked my curiosity whenever I go to Rush Street. I'll definitely check it out and start off with the Hite tower of power.

Smokeless bbqs too so I will not have to bring a second set of clothes equals a major win too.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 8:54:00 AM  
Blogger weezermonkey said...

"Christine quickly took charge, asserting her dominance, and I eagerly entrusted my meat to her willing and capable hands."


Tuesday, November 03, 2009 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger MyLastBite said...

Yes! galbi 'n' grits!!! (love my grits)

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 10:44:00 AM  
Blogger Gastronomer said...

I was going to say something about how impressed I was with the food at Gyenari, but then I read Weezer Monkey's comment and lost my train of thought.


Tuesday, November 03, 2009 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger sygyzy said...

Entrusted your meat into her hands huh Kevin? Trying to sneak that one in, nice.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009 2:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

I'm a little disappointed as had I hoped that Gyenari would bring something new to Korean cuisine. Korean food tends towards heavy-handed flavors and large-handed portions; that's wonderful, but we already have Koreatown for unpretentious and affordable meals.

Kevin, have you found any place offering what might be called sophisticated Korean food?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009 3:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Jai Kohli said...

Hopefully when you thrusted your meat into Christine's willing hands you didn't get kalbi sauce everywhere... it can be quite the sticky mess.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009 2:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Crazy Hook is awesome to pick up skanks lol Great review!

Wednesday, November 04, 2009 6:38:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Discerner: Thanks. I agree about Downtown CC; it's definitely coming into its own as a culinary hot spot. And I think I need to request the Hite cylinder time as well heh. ;)

Weezer: What? I see nothing funny about that. ;)

Jo: On second thought, that combination might not be so bad, with the grits cutting the unctuousness of the short ribs...

Cathy: Yowsa indeed! I'm surprised that you went back there so quickly though. It looked pretty good from your post.

sygyzy: Just making sure that people are actually reading the text... ;)

Alex: I think Gyenari does in fact bring something new to Korean cuisine via "Seoulfood." The problem was that we were provided none of that; instead, we were given the your common, classic fare. But in terms of sophisciated Korean, I'm not aware of any place that really steps it up a notch.

Jai: "Kalbi sauce?" Gochujang, please!

Anon: Ha! I'll keep that in mind next time (only been there once).

Thursday, November 05, 2009 7:42:00 PM  
Blogger yenasung said...

I'm not quite sure what sophisticated Korean cuisine is. Maybe the multi-course meals that the imperial kings would eat from ancient times? I think Yongsusan in LA does that. But it's definitely not fusion, like David Chang and Momofuku. We need a branch here in LA.

Culver City is a great place for art galleries, if you're into that. Some of the best ones are Blum & Poe and Honor Fraser on La Cienega.

I hope you were eating your pork belly with a slice of garlic and a dollop of ssamjang (which is in fact soy-based; it's dwenjang). It's the best bite of heaven your mouth could ever ask for.

Friday, November 06, 2009 12:09:00 PM  
Blogger yenasung said...

Oh, and I've always felt weird calling jeon 'pancakes', since the IHOP type pancakes always come to mind, and that's not it at all and doesn't give the right impression. The best term I've come up with so far is 'egg-battered fritter".

Friday, November 06, 2009 12:24:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

Yena, would you recommend Yong Su San? I've heard mixed reviews about the place.

I'm not a fan of the "pancake" description for jeon either, hence my appendage of the "-like." "Fritter" sounds good though.

Also, do you know what the "beef dipping sauce" was?

Sunday, November 08, 2009 4:17:00 PM  
Blogger yenasung said...

I haven't been to Yongsusan in years, but from what I remember, the overall experience was just okay. 'Oh, interesting.' Apparently, the cuisine is really specific to a region in Korea of which I'm not familiar with. But it does consist of more milder flavors, which is typical of imperial court dining.

I can't really tell from your photo. The ssamjang looks more like a chili sauce to me, instead of a true, soybeany, stinky fermented ssamjang. When I think of a beef dipping sauce for KBBQ, I think of the salt and pepper and sesame oil. It's not that?

Sunday, November 08, 2009 8:22:00 PM  
Blogger kevinEats said...

The ssamjang did look somewhat like a chili sauce, though I believe our server said ssamjang, so I went with it.

As for the "beef dipping sauce," I didn't detect sesame oil, so I don't think it was that.

Monday, November 09, 2009 6:20:00 PM  

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