About four years ago chef Kyungmin Kay Hyun opened a Korean tapas restaurant in the East Village called Thursday Kitchen. The food was (and remains) terrific, the atmosphere convivial, and, largely due to the "Capri-Thursday" cocktails served in a clear plastic bags with LED ice cubes, the place quickly became an extremely popular party spot.
That's great news for Hyun and her crew, but after awhile Chef Kay was itching to spread her culinary wings, to make dishes that were a little more complex, and maybe a bit fancier, than she could comfortably create in the raucous Thursday. And so we now have Hyun's second venture, Mokyo, located just a block away on St. Mark's Place and serving some of the best, most exciting food I've had in months.
Mokyo, which translates, slightly slangily, to "Thurs" in Korean, is still a decidedly casual restaurant, with raw wood floors, exposed brick, and utilitarian tables that can seat about 60 in three separate dining areas: one up front with a long banquette, one just south of the bar (which doesn't have seats and functions mostly as place to hang and drink while you wait for your table), and one in the back past the kitchen. The decor is of flea-market-finds variety, and that vintage stove that used to sit in front of Thursday Kitchen puts in an appearance here.
The prices, too, while higher than Thursday, are still reasonable, with nothing more expensive than $15. And it's all hearty fare, so four or five dishes, plus dessert because it's amazing, is plenty for two people. It's not explicitly stated—this is a small plates place, after all—but the Mokyo menu basically runs from appetizer to entree, and, in a tactic I wish more restaurants would adopt, they course it out for you so your table's not suddenly swamped with food.
All six things I ate at a complimentary press dinner recently were fantastic. Start with the Corn Dumplings, which maybe sound basic but have signature-dish potential for their inventiveness and appeal. The skin is surprisingly thin, but it holds a fat ball of corn puree that'll buckle your knees with pleasure. It's just exactly sweet enough, with shaved fennel draped over the top and truffle salsa verde adding both brightness and earthiness.
Fungi fans won't want to miss the Mushroom starter, featuring a generous tangle of chanterelles swimming in a creamy wild sesame sauce and covered with thin sheets of slightly charred cabbage. The Gumbo, thick with bits of crawfish, shrimp, andouille sausage, and soft plantains, uses Korean chili pepper to excellent effect in the fiery red sauce. And the Korean Steak is wonderfully tender, the half dozen slabs of meat glazed in a soy marinade, placed upon a puddle of mashed parsnips and accompanied by a stack of collard greens.
Two starchy dishes finish things off, one Noodle-based and, my pick on this night, a beautiful bowl of Duck Fried Rice. There are plenty other potential delights here too, including a Scallop Ceviche, an Oxtail Spring Roll, a Pork Jowl and Cauliflower dish, and a Chicken concoction spiced up with za'atar. As you can see, Hyun uses techniques and ingredients from all over the world at Mokyo.
Dessert is a must. Or, at least, the Pop Rocks I devoured shouldn't be missed, a small mountain of tangy mascarpone gelato drizzled with a red berry sauce, sweet crumbles on top, dehydrated raspberries scattered about, with housemade carbonated sugar bombs underneath it all providing the in-mouth crackle.
This is an excellent restaurant, instantly one of my favorite new places in the city, but, sorry, after a lengthy soft opening period it's already been discovered by everyone, with hour-long table. Beer, sake, soju, and wine are plentiful, with no glowing plastic bag cocktails anywhere in sight.
Mokyo is located at 109 St. Mark's Place, between First Avenue and Avenue A, and is open Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., and on Thursday through Saturday from 6 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. Closed Mondays (mokyony.com)