The opening of “the next Korean barbecue restaurant” in midtown Manhattan by K-pop star and producer Jin Young Park has generated some controversy. Some think the restaurant’s aesthetic is too antiseptic to provide an authentic Korean experience.
Some reviews have viciously criticized the atmosphere, exemplified by the restaurant’s namesake crystal barbecue grills. Meat is cooked on a gas-heated, 99 percent crystal griddle in the “belly” of a golden Buddha-shaped frame embedded in the center of each table. The sloped griddle drains grease away from the meat into an under-table trap, and an exhaust fan incorporated in the griddle frame keeps much of the smoke of cooking meat from filling the restaurant and the clothes of patrons.
Reviewers claim the environment is overly elegant, even sanitized, in comparison to the more rustic feel of many all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue restaurants. To those people I would say, it’s not about you.
Kristalbelli does not indulge those who have a fever for the food of Korea’s third-world past of 50 years ago, or even a decade or two past. It’s for Korean food virgins and neophytes, many of who are non-Korean fans of JYP’s K-pop bands.
Readers of my restaurant reviews may remember that my family aren’t hardcore Korean food fanatics like myself and my dear husband. That’s why I enjoy taking them — they might say, dragging them — to Korean restaurants, especially when I really need the perspective of those with little to no understanding or appreciation of Korean food.
To make sure everyone would have a chance to pass some degree of judgment on it, we asked to eat each dish “family-style.”
This is the first Korean restaurant I’ve been to in a long time where the wait staff was eager to answer any and all questions about dish ingredients and preparation. And in a first for me States-side, I didn’t have to be the one explaining all the dishes.
And there was a lot of explaining to do, with multiple 반찬 banchan items (side dishes served with the meal), appetizers and main dishes. My father-in-law counted 50 plates of various sizes on the table for the five of us.
The spread was more typical of a leisurely dinner setting than a rushed work week lunch. If you are really craving barbecue, going at lunch vs. dinner won’t save you any money. But, satiating your craving earlier in the day may save you time. The restaurant wasn’t crowded when we went after the lunch hour.
Each of us received banchan. That included bamboo shoots, seaweed salad and pickled cucumbers. Interestingly, the pickled cucumbers had a pleasant combination of soy sauce, sesame oil and a slightly smoky flavor.
Also among the banchan were two kinds of kimchi: 배추김치 baechu (the most commonly seen kind, made from Nappa cabbage) and 총각김치 chonggak (ponytail radish). The ponytail radish was a little on the spicy side. Yet it was pretty fresh, no more than a couple of weeks old in my estimation.
The first appetizer tray brought to our table had delicately sliced raw tuna set on a bed of lime slices, dabbed with citrus sauce. The tuna was fresh and seemed to melt in my mouth.
The second appetizer was a small serving of rice wrapped in tofu skin and drizzled with a mustard citrus sauce.
The third appetizer was tempura-fried crab legs surrounded by squiggly trails of spicy mayonnaise and savory, okonomyaki-type sauce on the small platter.
For the main dishes, we ordered Wagyu 갈비 galbi (grilled beef, $31), 두부 잡채 tofu japchae (savory cellophane noodle dish, $13), 크리스탈 비빔밥 Kristal bibimbap with tofu ($15) and 두부 된장찌개 tofu doenjang jjigae (fermented-soybean stew, $12).
This japchae was somewhat unconventional. It had the typical mix of mushrooms, tofu and shredded carrots, but it also had shiitake (aka 표고 pyogo) mushrooms and asparagus. The flavors were balanced, none overpowering the others.
Japchae is a common item on Korean restaurant menus. Yet, I never know what I’m going to get, because it is pretty easy to mess up the delicate balance of bold flavors: sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper. Sometimes, the soy sauce is dominant, and other times, it’s the sesame oil that terrorizes the tongue. One restaurant used a black pepper–forward sauce — unforgettable, not in a good way.
We asked for the Wagyu galbi to be grilled medium-well, basically between medium rare and well done. The meat was well-marbled and tender. The waiter cooked it, so we wouldn’t be distracted from our conversation with the task of grilling. The 쌈장 ssamjang (spicy, savory sauce spread on 깻잎 kkaenip/perilla or lettuce leaves wrapped around grilled meat) had a wonderful robust doenjang component, but it was not overly salty.
Accompanying the kalbi was a little dishful of Nagui sea salt. It’s an unrefined sea salt from harvested from filtered salt water at Docho Island in Korea. It has 20 percent less sodium than Guérande sea salt of France and three times its mineral content, according to the restaurant’s blog. Our waiter pointed out those attributes and recommended we dip at least one piece of galbi in the salt. It was a pleasant, new experience.
The bibimbap had the traditional mix of veggies, which we ordered with tofu. It also had two different kinds of seaweed:kim (aka nori) and seaweed stem called miyeok julgi, and yet seaweed flavor did not overwhelm the dish. Since we were eating the meal family-style, they were kind enough to bring out separate little dishes of gochujang so we could decide whether to spice up the bibimbap individually.
Korean restaurants in the States I’ve visited offer 고추장 gochujang (spicy red pepper sauce) separately, allowing diners to apply as much pain as desired. In keeping with the upper-scale setting, Kristalbelli also offered the sauce separately but in a small dish, rather than in the refillable plastic squeeze bottle of the typical barbecue house. This version of the sauce was sweet, as is common for bibimbap gochujang, but the amount of spiciness was milder that the conventional preparation.
The one adjective that circulated over and again through my mind during the meal was “balanced.” Balancing favors is really a difficult task, especially for Korean cuisine, which is known for its bold flavors. Kristalbelli does that well, maybe too well for some people’s tastes.
Yet, one can’t accuse Kristalbelli of false advertising. One of its goals stated on their website is to “to spotlight the delicate aspects of Korean cooking.”
When we entered the restaurant, it was hard not to notice the wine collection, prominently displayed near the front desk. It’s quite the wine list for a Korean restaurant, with wines from major wine regions all over the wine world: Oregon, Australia, the Napa/Sonoma region of California and Europe. We did not order any wine with our meal, so I would have to leave it to someone with more wine experience to judge the wine and food pairing experience.
If you’re up for it, Kristalbelli currently is hosting a food and wine pairing every Wednesday at 3 p.m. New York time, according to the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Kristalbelli’s second floor has a bar and lounge. We didn’t have an opportunity to go up there on this trip. Someday, I would like to try the 복분자 스테이크 Bokbunja steak ($23), described as a “steak with black raspberry reduction.” I think this is the first dish I’ve seen in a Korean restaurant using 복분자 bukbunjaju (black raspberry liqueur) for cooking.
Long-term success for this restaurant won’t be on the coattails of Mr. Park’s K-pop fame. Kristalbelli will have to win customers with great food and superior customer service.
The latter seemed to be a priority. My family’s relatively virgin palates were treated with respect rather than condescension. And it was the first time I’ve seen a Korean restaurant actively solicit comments via a customer-service survey handed to each of us at the end of the meal. For many diners, especially JYP’s target audience, the emphasis on service will cover alleged culinary faux-pas.
8 W. 36th St.
New York, NY 10018
Lunch: Monday–Saturday, 11:30 a.m.–2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday–Thursday, 5–10:30 p.m.; Friday–Saturday, 5–11 p.m.
Lounge: Monday–Thursday, 5 p.m.–1 a.m.; Friday–Saturday, 5 p.m.–3 a.m.; Sunday, 5–10:30 p.m.