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Eat No.13 Eat a City: Asian Manhattan

To quote the former New York Times food columnist William Grimes from his book, “Appetite City”, “New York is the greatest restaurant city the World has ever seen”. Paris has better French restaurants, Madrid better Spanish restaurants, and Tokyo better Japanese restaurants, but no city offers such a variety of national cooking styles as New York. According to city records, New York’s 24,000 restaurants feed each of the 8.5 million New Yorkers and visitors an average of once a week. That’s a lot of Eat Manhattan diners!

So many great places to eat, and a few truly exceptional ones. We hit the streets to find our four favorite Eat Manhattan spots in this eating megacity.

Cafe China

Open Cafe China’s doors on 37th street and you step into Shanghai circa 1930. Vintage movie posters, antique typewriters, and old books all conspire to relieve your mind of the modern world outside.

eat manhattan

Cafe China is one of a new wave of Chinese restaurants that has finally shed the curious history of American-Chinese food, leaving behind the days of “General Tso” chicken and enormous book-like menus, to focus on Chinese food — you know, the kind of food they actually eat in China.

Cafe China specializes in Sichuan-style cooking. Husband and wife team, Xian Gang and Yiming Wang, left careers in banking to enter the food scene with a vision to bring real Chinese food to their customers. When they opened the doors in 2012 they were food-scene newbies but were quick studies. Now they have three restaurants, each focusing on authentic Chinese food with great success.

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I arrived for lunch to a packed room, half of the patrons were Chinese expats and most of the others seeming like regulars, all enthusiastically ordering their favorites from Cafe China’s compact menu. Xian ordered a selection of dishes for me to try. Each featured fresh ingredients with subtle sauces and light seasoning reflecting the Sichuan region. Being served small dishes with different ingredient combinations, is familiar, but the taste is pleasantly unfamiliar. A balance is struck between sauce seasoning and ingredients so that the fresh produce can be fully expressed in a Sichuan setting.

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Yiming explains that it’s just home cooking. It’s what’s been going on in Sichuan for ages. What’s changed is that diners in the West have become more outward looking. They’re interested in authenticity, in experiencing another place, and food is a great way to take a trip.

In both environment and cuisine Cafe China will transport you.

Atoboy

At the Southern end of Koreatown on 28th Street is a new addition to New York’s dining scene. Atoboy, derives its name from an old Korean saying meaning “Gift”.

Junghyun Park (JP) and his wife Ella moved to New York from South Korea to work with former boss Yim Yungsik in establishing the famous Seoul fine dining restaurant, Yungsik, in Tribeca.

Falling in love with the Big Apple during his stint as Chef de Cuisine at Yungsik, JP and Ella eventually decided to branch out on their own with a progressive Korean food take on continental cuisine.

In case you missed it, Korean food is experiencing a rise in prominence these days. Virtually unknown to the general public a few years ago, Korean dishes such as Bibimbap, Makgeolli, Bulgogi and Kimchi are quickly becoming staples of the US foodie scene.

Atoboy has taken a different direction though. Instead of cooking Korean dishes, they have embraced a more familiar menu but adapted Korean cooking techniques to prepare the dishes. This is JP’s way of integrating his art with his new home and the result is something totally new.

JP tells me that from the beginning they wanted to place Korean techniques at the center of their new kitchen, but to blend them with more locally familiar cooking styles like French and Italian, all to make local fresh ingredients the feature.

They truly have succeeded. Ingredients are seasonal and fresh and if you are a Korean food fan, you will find much that seems familiar. But without knowing Atoboy’s Korean connections you would just think the food inspiring, comforting and delicious!

The three-course tasting menu is “Banchan” style, a typical Korean way of serving where multiple small dishes are presented. To select your meal you just choose an option from each of three sections on the menu.

JP and Ella have adapted a bare-bones approach to Atoboy’s dining environment. They found a space previously occupied by a deli, stripped it down to the bare concrete walls and installed just the basics. With no added color and simple canteen-style table settings, the room appears spacious. And with no other distractions, all attention is directed toward JP’s amazing food.

For a three-course menu, Atoboy comes in at about 36 dollars. For food this labor intense and of such high quality, that’s phenomenal! As they say in Korea “나는 거기에 가고 싶다”, “I want to go there”.

Kunjip

Kunjip literally means “fathers eldest brother’s house.” The eldest always inheriting the family home; it is the place where the whole family gathers for special occasions and cook the staple Korean dishes like Japchae, Hoeddeok, Ddukbokki or Seolleongtang, which are on the menu at Kunjip.

 

Family owned some members of the second generation are already working in the restaurant and many regulars know the family. Kunjip operates 24 hours perfect for the City that never sleeps, spread out over two floors, it is buzzing place at all hours, and hungry patrons always line up to get a table.

I love to visit for lunch as Koreans working in offices around Korea town descend on Kunijp for a quick bite to eat, and it makes me feel like I am in Seoul. Orders are mostly made in Korean, everybody looking to fulfill their fond memories of favorite dishes from the motherland.

 

No matter if you are an adventurous foodie or a beginner in Korean cuisine, there is plenty to choose from. The menu covers many classics, Bibimbap (a safe option also for vegetarians), marinated Blue Crab (my favorite), several different Kimchis (radish and cabbage-based in various stages of fermentation), cold buckwheat noodle soup, and of course all tables are set up for barbecue.

 

Kunjip grows many of their own vegetables on a farm in nearby New Jersey and all their sauces in house. Most important the pricing is excellent!

Wonjo

Just across the street is Wonjo, the younger sister of Kunjip. Wonjo means origin and offers a similar menu to Kunjip with an emphasis on traditional Korean charcole-fired barbecue accompanied by Soju, a distilled burnt rice liquor.

 

Charcoal cooking in Manhattan restaurants is no longer allowed. Wonjo, however, was grandfathered in, so while most restaurants have moved to electric grills, Wonjo us able to continue grilling in the traditional way. For the taste, it makes all the difference.

 

The menu offers classic Korean dishes served for sharing. Wonjo is open 24 hours and is a definite must stop on your New York food tour. If you find yourself hungry and out all hours head straight to Wonjo.

 

 

So there you have it, Eat Manhattan, influences from China, Korea, and one closer to home, Coney Island New York. But all in their way distinctively New York.

Details

1 Cafe China: for directions opening hours and to make a reservation go to: www.cafechinanyc.com

2 Atoboy: For opening hours, directions and reservations which we highly recommend go to: www.atoboynyc.com

3 Kunjip: For opening hours, directions and reservations go to: www.kunjip.com

4 Wonjo: For opening hours, directions and reservations go to: www.wonjo.com.com

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

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