At the chef Jae Jung’s tiny spot in the East 30s, a good-times-roll spirit prevails.
Kjun is a freewheeling party where dishes from Korea mix and mingle with dishes from New Orleans. Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
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By Pete Wells
We live in a great age for Korean dining in New York City, or at least for a certain style of Korean dining. Atomix, Jua and about a dozen other kitchens are spinning out thoughtful, elegant restatements of hwe, japchae, galbi and other dishes. The cooking is focused and serious; the plating is precise and Instagrammable; the hospitality is smooth and kind; the dining rooms are as simple and geometric as the drafting software can make them; and the meal is a steady progression of courses, with few choices and a set price of around $100 or more.
Lately the formula has been catching on with restaurants that used to get along with an à la carte format. Little Mad recently switched to a three-course, $95 “Mad Dinner Experience,” and when Brian Kim closed Oiji, which had started life with only two items over $20, he replaced it with Oiji Mi, where most customers order from a five-course, $145 fixed-price menu.
The city is lucky to have all this talent and precision, but it can get a little monotonous. Isn’t there one inventive Korean chef left in the city who doesn’t dream of tweezers and wine pairings and supplemental scoops of caviar?
There is, and her name is Jae Jung. In September, she opened her first restaurant, Kjun, in a room in the East 30s that is the size of a minivan. The menu, which Ms. Jung frequently revises, is a freewheeling party at which dishes from New Orleans, both Cajun and Creole, mingle with dishes from Korea. They get familiar. Occasionally they swap partners. (That may explain the name, which is pronounced something like Cajun.) Everything on the menu — starting with the great, scalding heap of freshly fried potato chips that glow with warm honey, melted brown butter and red Cajun spices — is ordered separately.
Ms. Jung does offer what she calls a chef’s tasting, but it does not resemble in size, presentation or anything else the stately processions of small, sculpted bites that you might find at, say, Joomak Banjum. Priced at $85, it is described as “a taste of everything on the menu,” although the portions do not appear to be scaled down. Twice I sat next to people who got the chef’s tasting, and as far as I can tell they were served the entire menu. Neither group came close to finishing.
Kjun has captured the forget-about-tomorrow abandon that animates some of New Orleans’s most characteristic restaurants, from Galatoire’s on down. It is an impressive achievement for a restaurant this far north, let alone one that doesn’t serve liquor yet.
This trick is managed without burying you in bayou atmospherics. Until a customer donated a Jazz Fest poster, Kjun’s décor began and ended with a string or two of Mardi Gras beads and a bottle of Crystal Hot Sauce on each table. Most are too small to hold much more than that, which doesn’t mean anything at this restaurant.
Lack of table space will not keep away the japchae boudin balls, with glass noodles in place of rice and a golden coating of bread crumbs holding the juices inside. It won’t stop the double-fried chicken hot from its second dip in oil, its skin ridged and rippled from the collision of buttermilk with a batter normally used on jeon, the savory Korean pancakes.
There will be no turning back the bowl of glossy gumbo brimming with housemade andouille and fragrant with filé powder, no sending away the iron skillet of honey cornbread with jalapeño wheels baked into the top crust. You barely have time to consolidate half-finished plates, offer the last fried oyster to your neighbors, and wonder if they will let you place the latest dish from the kitchen on their empty stool before they realize how valuable undeveloped real estate is at Kjun.
The sturdy portions and plating style are in part a function of Kjun’s roots in the pandemic. Ms. Jung started selling her Korean Louisianian cooking early in 2021 for takeout and delivery. She kept at it through several changes of kitchen and a run on “Top Chef” while she looked for permanent quarters. The spot she found, on East 39th Street, is furnished with two big refrigerated deli cases. These are deeply stocked with cold appetizers and side dishes in plastic containers ready for takeout. If you sit down at a table or the short counter and order some kimchi — crunchy okra coated with chile flakes, cubes of mirliton, wedges of green tomatoes as crisp and tart as fall apples — Ms. Jung will grab a refrigerated eight-ounce container and upend the whole works over a plate.
The kimchis are very good, but you will probably have some left over. For that, there are more takeout containers, stacks and stacks of them.
You don’t have to eat too many things at Kjun before you understand that Ms. Jung’s grasp of the food of New Orleans is stronger than the average New Yorker’s. She serves her gumbo, for instance, not just over rice, the partner everybody knows, but also with potato salad, much less frequently seen and all the more loved by those who prefer it.
The route that led to a style of cooking that is Ms. Jung’s and nobody else’s began with her childhood in Seoul. It led through the kitchens of Dooky Chase’s, Restaurant August and other New Orleans institutions. Later, in New York, she sharpened her skills at Café Boulud and Le Bernardin.
She has cooked tasting-menu food. On her website are photographs of dishes as intricately composed as the ones at larger, more expensive restaurants. This makes me even more glad that I can go to Kjun for a heap of collards, seasoned with ginger, soy and more than a little ground chile. Or for the fried chicken, which now has to be on any serious list of the city’s best. Or for her take on the homey Korean Chinese noodles called jajangmyeon, which she stir-fries in a dark, smooth sauce tasting of squid ink and then tops with fried oysters, daikon and poached lobster.
For dessert, there are hotteok — stuffed, griddled pancakes. Hotteok are sold on the street all over South Korea, but the filling of Kjun’s hotteok point straight at the French Quarter: chicory coffee and pecans. There is more of that on top, with warm caramel syrup.
But there is also the Strawberry Yummy to consider. Kept in one of the refrigerated cases, this is something like a strawberry shortcake in a box. A clear plastic cube is filled with sweetened condensed milk and cornbread, all fluffed up together. Glowing red in the corners of the cube are quartered strawberries soaked in green-plum syrup. It looks like a fruit kaleidoscope. Served at the end of a long, $100 tasting menu, it would shine.
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