Sunday, January 28, 2024

Joomak Banjum (New York, NY)

Joomak Banjum
312 5th Ave, New York, NY 10001
Sun 01/28/2024, 04:30p-07:20p

[4/15 Update: As of February 18th, the restaurant is temporarily closed, due to an unexpected rent hike. Chef Kim is apparently looking for a new location to re-open, and in the meantime, Joomak Banjum is popping up at DDOBAR.]

Joomak Banjum Exterior

For the final meal of this abbreviated NYC trip, I made my way to Koreatown to visit Joomak Banjum (주막 반점). The place has been around since June 2021, and ostensibly serves a modern interpretation of Korean Chinese fare, which immediately caught my interest. The partners here are Executive Chef Jiho Kim, Executive Pastry Chef Kelly Nam, and Pastry Chef Sarah Kang, all of whom come from a dessert-y background, a fact that also greatly piqued my intrigue.

About the Chefs: Kim Ji-ho (김지호) was born in 1973 and grew up in Seoul. He didn't seriously consider a career in hospitality until it was time to graduate from Jamsin High School, when his father suggested that he study culinary arts at a government-sponsored hotel school in Gyeongju. He quick found out that he enjoyed cooking, and attained his certification in two years. Kim secured employment at the Renaissance Hotel in Seoul, and it was here where he eventually transitioned to the pastry side of things. He ended up staying there for 10 years, rising to lead pâtissier for the property. However, around 2000, he started getting bored of the job, and thus began learning English and poring through cookbooks, which reinvigorated his interest in the craft.

Kim also felt the urge to live abroad during this period, and thus ended up emigrating to Boston with his wife. He had a difficult time when he first arrived, and after working at a number of hotels early on, landed a Pastry Chef position at Sandrine's Bistro in Cambridge in 2004. In 2005, he moved to DC for a post at Viridian, but soon returned to Boston, where he opened a short-lived deli by the name of East at West. Kim's big break arrived in 2007, when he became Executive Pastry Chef at Frank McClelland's iconic L'Espalier. He later relocated to New York (where he always wanted to end up anyway), and in October 2013, was brought on to lead the pastry program at Gordon Ramsay at The London, but he only stayed until the following March.

From there, he took part in opening Beautique in April 2014, but decamped that September to serve as Exec Pastry Chef at The Modern, which is where he really began making a name for himself. By 2019, Kim had plans to open up his own restaurant called "Jiho," but the pandemic quickly scuttled that proposal. To make matters worse, he was also laid off from his job at The Modern. He thus began posting Korean cooking videos online, which resulted in catering requests and eventually the idea for a pop-up. However, he couldn't do all that by himself, and thus asked an old colleague of his to join him.

Kelly Yoonjung Nam (남윤정) was born in 1986 and grew up between Korea and Diamond Bar, California. As a teenager, she baked regularly, but was actually more interested in art. However, she soon realized that she didn't quite have the talent to succeed in the art world. Now without a clear path going forward, her parents suggested that she attend San Jose State University to study teaching. But at the urging of her cousin (during a Thanksgiving dinner), she applied to the culinary arts program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in part because the school didn't require an essay. Nam wound up being accepted, and decided to go there following high school graduation in 2005. She enjoyed her time at UNLV, and would finish her bachelor's degree in 2008, after which she moved to Boston to attend Boston University's graduate program in gastronomy.

She ended up dropping out though, and after cooking for a bit on the savory side, decided that she wanted to transition to pastry. In 2010, Nam was able to secure a pastry cook position at Michael Schlow's Radius, and the following year, she moved over to L'Espalier, which is where she met Kim for the first time. She stayed until March 2013, when she moved to NYC and spent ten months at Nobu Fifty Seven. From there, Kim brought her on as his pastry sous at Gordon Ramsay. Both of them left in March 2014 to open Beautique, and the two simultaneously jumped ship to The Modern that fall. Their paths diverged in July 2017, when Nam went to Paris to become Executive Pastry Chef at Grégory Marchand's Frenchie. By April 2019, she was back in the States, leading the pastry program at Stephen Starr's Electric Lemon at Hudson Yards, where she remained until March 2020, when everything shut down due to COVID-19.

Nam and Kim started going on walks together in an effort to lose their pandemic weight, and decided to join forces for catering events, and then later a pop-up. Kim actually had a friend who owned the shuttered Radio Star noraebang in K-town, and this friend let them use the space for their venture. Called Joomak and partially funded through GoFundMe, the casual one-month pop-up debuted at the end of September 2020. It ended up being pretty successful, and spawned a second iteration called Joomak TA-KO, which ran for a month starting November 12th at RPM Underground, another karaoke joint owned by the same friend. There was also a third round, held in January-February 2021 at Niche Niche in the South Village. The pop-ups eventually led to the conceptualization of Joomak Banjum, but to realize their vision, Kim and Nam would need to bring on another partner: Sarah Kang, whom they actually met at their first pop-up.

Kang actually didn't start out in the hospitality world. A graduate of Parsons The New School for Design (c/o 2014, bachelor's in business administration), she actually began her career in the fashion industry. However, after four years, she realized that her true passion was food, and thus relocated to Japan to sharpen her skills at Le Cordon Bleu Tokyo. She studied there from April 2018 to March 2019, and following, came back to New York to open Konbini, an all-day eatery inspired by the convenience stores she oft encountered in Japan. Konbini debuted in September 2019, but closed abruptly after about a week, retooled, and reopened that November with a new interior and more upscale cooking. The place continued to chug along, but was shuttered permanently by April 2021.

That shutter was key, as it allowed Kang to offer the space for Joomak Banjum's use, and after some renovations, the restaurant grand-opened on June 23rd, 2021. The team was able to achieve a Michelin star the following October for their imaginative takes on Korean cuisine, and have since been able to retain that star. Around the same time, Kim teamed up with Sechul Yang (ex-Oiji Mi CdC) to open DDOBAR (또바), which serves a "yubu tart" (yubuchobap) tasting menu at Olly Olly Market, a food hall in Chelsea. Interestingly, DDOBAR was actually in the works before Joomak Banjum, and was supposed to be helmed by Nam, but she ended up not being able to leave her post after the place got busy following the Michelin star. Chef Kim's next venture was JM Bakery, an Asian-inspired French bakery that bowed in April 2023, also inside Olly Olly.

Joomak Banjum Interior
The same basic layout remains from the Konbini days, though the space has certainly taken on a posher aesthetic. Before Konbini, the address was actually home to a Korean-Chinese eatery called Dong Chun Hong (동천홍), which seems fitting.

Joomak Banjum Studio
Given that I was here for the Studio menu, I was seated at a counter in front of the pastry kitchen.

Joomak Banjum Studio Menu Joomak Banjum Sunday's Sundae Menu
The night's menu is shown above, signed by Nam as well as pastry cook Madison Cumbest (Jean Georges, Vesuvio Bakery, Zuma, CIA Hyde Park '19). As mentioned above, I opted for the flagship 11-course Studio Tasting Menu at $235, which has an optional wine pairing at $190. Other alternatives are the eight-course Ugly Duckling Tasting Menu (미운오리) at $185 plus $155, or the $95 four-course prix fixe. Also pictured is a card describing Sunday's Sundae, which is a weekly-rotating ice cream sundae from Chef Nam that's been offered every Sunday since August 13th last year. To drink, you get a relatively brief, but respectable wine list managed by Sommelier Amora Meas (see here). Click for larger versions.

Wet Towel
Upon being seated, I was quickly presented with a moist towel, which was a welcomed nicety.

'Everything Bagel'
My amuse bouche combined familiar "everything" bagel spices with citrusy notes and a backing of smoke from the salmon, making for a fanciful first bite.

1: Caviar | Hay Custard, Pomegranate
This Nordic-leaning course showed off the sweet-n-savory, burnt character of a smoked hay custard, juxtaposed against the lingering saltiness of ossetra caviar, with pops of pomegranate perking things up.

2: Fluke | Pear, Beet & Pine Nut
Earl Grey-cured fluke arrived smoky and saline, set in a fruity, floral, minty, lacto pear juice-enriched broth that did a nice job offsetting the fish's stronger flavors. I got a great crunch from that gangjeong (rice cracker) to boot.

MV Pehu-Simonet, 'Face Nord' Brut, Grand Cru, Pinot Noir+, Montagne de Reims, Champagne
To drink, I ordered a bottle of the MV Pehu-Simonet, 'Face Nord' Brut, Grand Cru, Pinot Noir+, Montagne de Reims, Champagne [$170] (disgorged November 2022). On the nose, the wine demonstrated concentrated orchard fruits joined by a touch of toast and floral. Taking a sip, I found a healthy amount of acidity, alongside yellow fruit, hints of barnyard, and smidges of citrus, all making for an enjoyable sparkler overall.

Botan Ebi
3: Botan Ebi | Eclair, Matsutake & Crab
This rather striking course married the saline sweetness of raw spot prawn and king crab with the salt-tinged sugariness of the eclair, but the crux here really was the unmistakably spicy-earthiness of matsutake, which crept in later and lingered long. I've never had anything quite like this before--a bit of a showstopper.

Banh Mi
4: Banh Mi | Beef Tartare, Mushroom & Buffalo Mozzarella
I can safely say that this was the most atypical bánh mì I've ever seen. The beef tartar went in a surprisingly Italian direction given its use of mozzarella, and the cheese definitely gave the bite a certain sweetness to go along with the woodsiness of the mushroom chutney. And as for that "tuile" on top, it was composed of some sort of dehydrated sauce, and definitely lent a savoriness to the course. However, I would've liked some more acidity or more herbaceousness in the bite to brighten things up.

Pumpkin Mochi Sorbet
The course above arrived with an almost "eggy" sorbet that I believe incorporated pumpkin mochi, and functioned as a bit of an intermezzo.

5: Eel | Foie Gras, Koshihikari Rice & Egg Yolk
I'm generally a fan of eel, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that this ended up as a favorite of mine. The grilled jang-eo displayed a delectable amalgam of salt, savor, sweetness, and spice, and melded surprisingly seamlessly with the heady, homey, yet finessed flavors of the Hudson Valley foie, all while the egg yolk contributed an enveloping lusciousness. Utterly cozy and comforting.

Baek Kimchi
Along with the eel came a serving of baek kimchi, which offered a brightness, acidity, and crunch that helped offset the potency of some of these heftier courses.

Black Cod
6: Black Cod | Soy Dashi, Napa Cabbage & Kombu Roulade
The requisite eundaegu was another highlight. I loved the fish's delicately seared exterior and flaky, buttery insides, while its hearty, gratifying flavors were augmented by jorim sauce and a foam incorporating katsuobushi and what I think was salt cod. Given all those robust flavors, the cabbage and baby bok choy were crucial for balance.

Sourdough Jajangmyeon
7: Sourdough Jajangmyeon | Comte Cheese, Clams & Pickled Shallots
Next came a jjajangmyeon like no other I've ever encountered. At first blush, I found it unabashedly rich, cheesy, and bready, with an almost French onion soup-like character. I quite appreciated both the texture and brine from the clams, which made sense with the dish's sweet, meaty notes, and also key were the actual noodles, which helped moderate everything. Panko imparted a smidge of crunch to the dish, though I wanted to taste more from the pickled shallots.

Long Island Duck
8: Long Island Duck | Sunchoke Basque Cheesecake, Duck Jus
20-day dry-aged Rohan duck arrived with a depth, savor, and smoke that was nearly ham-like. Its texture was almost ham-like as well, and the breast also boasted some crispy, subtly sweet skin. The bird was paired with a potent duck jus, and the cheesecake--set atop a layer of lotus root purée and garnished with sunchoke chips--served as an amusing accompaniment that helped lighten the mood.

9: Voodoo | Korean Pear & Rice Puff, Gruyere Ice Cream
This reimagined cheese course from Chef Kang did a great job blending substantial fruit flavors with the saltier nuances of a Gruyère-boosted ice cream, and I got some nice crispy bits, too.

Truffle Rice Ice Cream
Supplement: Truffle Rice Ice Cream [$30.00] | Yubu Caramel, Chili Crisp, Caviar, Fried Kombu
This was my favorite of the desserts thanks to how cleverly and effectively it integrated the salinity of golden osetra caviar and the muskiness of truffle, perfectly accenting the combination with the heat of chili crisp (with an assist from the caramel), all while the ice cream both toned things down and brought things together. A tour de force.

10: Porcini | White Coffee Chantilly, Sparkling Huckleberry Sorbet
In this next dessert, I was a big fan of the zippiness of that assertively flavored berry sorbet and how it coalesced with all those crumbly bits, while the porcini meringue and crème Chantilly offered up a savory, coffee-tinged accent.

Sunday's Sundae Taiyaki
Supplement: Sunday's Sundae [$28.00] | Peanut Crema, Gamtae Caramel, Koyo Strawberry, Black Garlic Ice Cream, & Taiyaki
The sundae was another standout, and perfectly combined the deep, aggressive flavors of black garlic ice cream with juicy cuts of strawberry, lush caramel, and all those nutty elements. The included bungeo-ppang was pretty spot-on too, with its classic filling of red bean and crisp-soft consistency. I want to say that this was the best sundae I've ever had.

Mala Dibs
11: Mala Dibs | Lemongrass, Tofu Ice Cream
This mash-up of a Nestlé Dibs-inspired ice cream and mapo tofu made for a fun, beguiling finish to the meal, and really did convey the nutty, prickly heat of its Sichuan inspiration thanks to the dessert's mala chocolate shell. Super neat.

Tonight's meal was not what I was anticipating. I had thought that the cooking here would stay relatively close to the playbook of junghwa yori, but instead, I found that the menu strayed quite a distance away from the confines of Korean Chinese cuisine. Apparently, the Chefs toed the line more strictly when the place first opened, but these days, the fare veers toward contemporary American with a plethora of global influences, many of them quite unexpected. I was also surprised about how much the food blurred the boundaries between sweet and savory, more so than in any other restaurant I've been to, a testament to the partners' pastry backgrounds. In the end, it's clear that the kitchen isn't afraid to play around, and this resulted in some fun, whimsical, creative, unconventional, and cerebral cooking that makes me very curious about what the team will come up with next.


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