A little skepticism is in order when you hear about the work history of a chef running a kitchen for the first time. As frequent diners know from sad experience, it is, in fact, possible to cook in an acclaimed restaurant without picking up any of the qualities that it’s acclaimed for. Even when actual skills have been learned, they are not always obvious. Or, occasionally, they’re all too obvious, and you’ll catch somebody in a two-person kitchen trying to replicate dishes originally assembled by a team of 40.
One interesting thing about Soogil Lim is that you can almost draw a straight line from his résumé to what’s on the table at his four-month-old restaurant in the East Village, Soogil. It’s easy to spot the imprint of Hooni Kim’s Hanjan, where he was the executive chef for four years. Mr. Lim lived in South Korea until he was 28, so what he learned at Hanjan was not how to make the country’s traditional food but how to rework it into appealing, contemporary small plates.
Daniel, where he spent seven years and reached the rank of sous-chef, turns up in the French techniques Mr. Lim leans on, in the crisp presentations that carry an echo of nouvelle cuisine, in the tender braised short rib, in his fondness for foie gras and in his preference for skillfully modulating flavors rather than tossing umami grenades.
It’s also apparent, when you look around the dining room, that in his earlier jobs Mr. Lim spent most of his time in the kitchen; the lineage you taste in his cooking doesn’t show up in the design. Soogil (SOO-gil) doesn’t evoke a rambunctious Korean pub the way Hanjan does. Nor is it a carpeted and tableclothed luxury liner, like Daniel.
Under the guidance of Mr. Lim’s wife, Sasook Youn, the dining room has been done in what we now recognize as the all-purpose Modern Asian style — a long banquette of blond wood against one wall, a dining counter facing another wall, and a long communal table with benches running down the middle, all of them sitting on a plank floor. A few framed prints by Suzy Taekyung Kim, a New York artist from South Korea, are suspended over the banquettes. French windows on the street can be thrown open if the weather ever cooperates.
Hanging in the back is a curtain. Once in a while it parts just wide enough for Mr. Lim’s face to appear while he scans the tables. Sometimes they are full.
They should be full all the time, because cooking like this does not just sprout up through every crack in the sidewalk, particularly at prices that, with one or two exceptions, don’t go over $20.
A good window into Mr. Lim’s mind is the bindaetteok appetizer. Usually these mung bean pancakes present as flat, starchy discs whose golden surfaces hint at crunchiness without actually delivering it. The ones at Soogil, fried in pork fat, have golden crusts like veal cutlets; by the time you’ve speared a piece with some chopped kimchi and dunked it in the traditional dipping sauce, you have all the expected flavors, plus a formidable crunch to sweeten the deal.
He tinkers with the glass noodle dish called japchae in less radical fashion. The noodles themselves, shaped into a swirl with crisp shreds of vegetables and oyster mushrooms, have drunk in more soy and sesame flavor than they typically do. And Mr. Lim seems to have tripled, at least, the amount of bulgogi, a point he emphasizes by mounding the meat over the noodles so it looks like a sloppy Joe missing its top bun.
The care the kitchen pays to technique is obvious in the seafood dishes; I’ve never had one that wasn’t perfectly cooked. Monkfish, which can come off as a rubber replica of some part of the anatomy I’d rather not think about, gets wrapped in a cabbage or lettuce leaf, gently poached, and sliced into neat little wheels. Arranged over stir-fried vegetables in a sea of fermented chile sauce, it’s terrific, and about as French as Korean cooking should be allowed to get.
An almost silky consistency marks the mackerel that Soogil serves, nigiri-style, over wads of rice that have been seasoned with ssamjang (standing in for wasabi?) and wrapped in chard leaves.
The tender Manila clams, squid and shrimp in the spicy tofu-seafood stew kept more of their natural juiciness than usual, although very firm shellfish isn’t necessarily a defect in that dish. Mr. Lim herds all the soft tofu into a flan at the bottom of the bowl, rather than letting cubes of it fend for themselves in the broth — a move that nicely heightens the contrast of tofu and chiles.
The least Korean thing on the menu must be the foie gras terrine, and it’s also one of the only disappointments, with its crumbly Melba toasts and washed-out green-plum jelly. A dish called nurungji gras is something else entirely: a fine seared hunk of foie gras laid over spinach and pickled mushrooms on a springy, crunchy sizzled rice cake.
Slabs of pork belly are braised until the fat streaks are nearly liquid. Then they’re given a meaningful sear and served alongside a stripe of a sauce I’ve never had before, made with fermented shrimp and green plums and fresh red peppers: spicy, salty, sour and hot.
The dish that breaks the $20 barrier is the short rib. If you’ve had Daniel’s braised short ribs, the tenderness and concentration will be familiar to you, although Soogil’s version is pointedly suffused with soy rather than red wine. Underlining the French connection, this block of beef is served with carrots, potatoes and winter squash. If you eat it by yourself, you could make dinner of it.
After which you should probably investigate something that goes by the name Jenga Tower. Cigarettes of fried dough, chewy like rice sticks, are stacked like a log cabin, then dusted with sugar and misugaru, the powdered grain and bean blend Koreans use as an instant breakfast drink. You pull out a stick at the time until the tower falls and brings down the scoop of honey-and-chestnut gelato balanced on top.
The dining room could take a few lessons in balance from that dessert. The lights could be dimmed by a few clicks. The pop music, while not actively awful, is just odd enough to be subliminally distracting. Soogil can’t seem to find the right tone for service, either. Some nights it’s very familiar and on others, peculiarly fussy — a server insisted on giving the book I’d brought a chair of its own.
These are minor snags, but sorting them out is tricky, especially for first-time restaurateurs. Somewhere in the middle is a relaxed, confident style that will match the spirit of Mr. Lim’s cooking.
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