Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Restaurant Review: A Pitch-Perfect Ode to Korean “Drivers’ Restaurants”

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This level of meticulous world-building is nothing new in restaurantland. Diners are used to being transported, via the meticulous construction of space and vibe, to the faraway, the unfamiliar, the nostalgically yearned-for. Normally, though, the atmosphere is designed to dazzle, telling a story of glamour and grandeur—the sultry greenery of the Caribbean, Positano in the fifties. What’s intriguing (and, to me, incredibly fun) about Kisa is that it applies the same aesthetic rigor in the opposite direction, away from the aspirational. Generally, when a buzzy restaurant’s food is of humble origin—like, say, the Indian roadside fare served at Jazba, a glossy, newish restaurant in the East Village, or the “street food” at the fancy new Tribeca steak house Beefbar—we tend to clumsily refer to it as “elevated,” a celebration of the everyday dressed up with a hip soundtrack, fancy tableware, pricey cocktails, and oligarchic ingredients. (Beefbar’s quesadilla, which includes Wagyu and truffle, is twenty-eight dollars.) Not so at Kisa. Call it a glow-down—an unphotogenic room, clashing and utilitarian signage, low-key food and service. The result is a slightly uncanny, tremendously compelling tension. The illusion is so straight-faced, so documentary, that an unknowing diner, wandering past, could sit down for a meal and have no idea that they were on a stage set and not in some off-radar, hole-in-the-wall discovery. I kept looking around for some kind of cool-kid tell: a secret list of high-end Champagnes, or a hidden door to a V.I.P.-only basement bar.

This conceit could easily have landed wrong, slipping perhaps into a distasteful sort of blue-collar cosplay. Kisa pulls it off, however, thanks in part to the obvious affection that the restaurateurs have for the diners to whom they pay homage. The old-school fan mounted to the wall, the printed-fabric cushions tied to the seats of the chairs with bows, the faded baby photos in frames—these details feel like they could only have come from a loving hand. Perhaps more important, the food is simply terrific. The prices, while not Seoul-cheap, are modest by the standards of the high-traffic Lower East Side—each thirty-two-dollar meal includes rice and soup (tofu and greens in a gently fiery broth) and seconds on the banchan. The kitchen, overseen by the chef Simon Lee, produces meals both excellent and abundant. When the food arrives, it presents a real-life geometry problem: how to position the bowl of rice, the bowl of soup, and the tremendous circular metal plate on which the rest of your dinner is arranged, your entrée of choice in the center, with little bowls of banchan arrayed around it like petals on a flower. On one visit, sensing the need for strategic dishware placement, I tried to be helpful and moved my water glass and chopsticks to make room. My server stopped me, with the soft forbearance of a person who’s gone through this dance a thousand times before. “I know how to make it work,” he said, and quickly Tetris’d everything into a staggered layout in which somehow, barely, every dish and cup and utensil fit on the slightly-too-small table.

Helen, Help Me!
E-mail your questions about dining, eating, and anything food-related, and Helen may respond in a future newsletter.

I ate at Kisa two days in a row, and I would gladly have gone back for more. Lee’s jeyuk (spicy pork) is sliced whisper-thin and grilled to a caramel sweetness; the ojingeo bokkeum (spicy squid) is charred and chewy, the heat of chilies given an edge of green thanks to fresh scallions. The vegetarian entrée, a bibimbap-style assemblage of pickled and steamed vegetables, is a bit bland, in both heat and flavor, but that mellowness is offset by joyous, colorful banchan—seven varieties, on my visits, including cabbage kimchi and sheets of roasted seaweed. There were slices of fluffy rolled omelette, wiggly strips of mung-bean jelly tossed in a seaweed purée, and sweet raw soy-sauce-cured shrimp, with mushrooms. The potato jorim, braised in sweet soy sauce, with tender hunks of beef, could serve as a meal on its own; the sotteok sotteok—skewers of alternating chewy rice cakes and cocktail weenies, brushed with gochujang—are sticky and savory and perfectly silly. There’s no dessert menu, but, after paying the bill at the end of the meal, you’ll be handed a quarter for the vintage automatic coffee machine by the door, which dispenses your hot chocolate, black-bean latte, or milky coffee into a paper cup that holds just enough to last you a half block beyond Kisa’s cab-driver fantasy—a little souvenir, hot and sweet, to bring back with you into the real world. ♦

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