The other day Ruth Reichl, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine came to speak at Columbia. She discussed the Korean menu featured prominently in the March issue. Ms. Reichl, a longtime fan of Korean food, said she had long known that it would become popular in the U.S. because the flavors were so exciting. She knew it was happening when David Chang of the Momofuku empire (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and Ko) took New York by a storm with innovative Korean-inspired creations like kimchi oysters. In the past month or so, Empanada Boy and I have tried Momofuku Noodle Bar and Momofuku Ssam Bar and been blown away by Chang’s creativity. In many ways his flavors are unique, but much of my love for Momofuku boils down to a basic passion for Korean food in general. I have always liked it for its sweet and spicy flavors, its use of lesser known vegetables and the prevalence of pickles. I didn’t eat it very much in the past because found the price of a full barbecue meal prohibitive. But New York has a much wider array of Korean spots to explore, and I crave the flavors so much that I am happy to keep doing so. One of the more affordable Korean options is The Mill Korean Restaurant, a place near Columbia that Auntie Pasti and Corn-y Uncle recommended. I went there with them before a recent concert at the Miller Theater and have returned since with EB, Crumpet and his roommate from Vassar.
One of the greatest things about traditional Korean service is the little complimentary amuse bouche salads that servers bring when you first sit down to order. There are bean sprouts, kimchi (chili-spiced, fermented cabbage), pickled zucchini and other strange and wonderful vegetables, all arranged in an assortment of small dishes. At Mill Korean, these are refilled will a second round of treats once you finish the first. This may be my favorite part of the meal, despite the fact that I am still unsure of the identity of many of the delicacies I’ve tried. These dishes sustain you while you order and wait for your food.
Both times I’ve been to Mill Korean, we’ve ordered the scallion pancakes. These are delicious flapjacks made with little more than flour, eggs and onions. The eggs give them a pleasantly chewy texture that I love. The pancakes come with a salty-sweet sauce for dipping. Apparently these pancakes, known as pajeon in Korean, are the favorites of poor students and hungry businessmen looking for a snack. I think one would make a great dinner on its own or with a salad on the side. This is one of the few Korean dishes I would definitely try making at home.
Mill Korean serves barbecue, which it cooks on the table in the traditional way. But the one dish I would not pass up is the bibimbap. Like the paella of Korea, bibimbap is a rice dish cooked with delicious meats, vegetables and seasonings. It often has a raw or lightly cooked egg that cooks when it is stirred into the hot rice. When made properly, bibimbap has a nice stickiness, especially in the bottom crust, close to the hot bowl. At Mill Korean, bibimbap comes in an individual size or in a large stone bowl that’s enough to feed two to four, depending on how much other food you order. The steaming dish arrives at the table topped with greens, which you then mix into the rice. It comes with a salty, oily and delicious whole broiled mackerel and a tasty soybean stew. Auntie Pasti, Corn-y Uncle and I tried the modeum kimchi and pork dolsot bibimbap, which has a great spicy note from the kimchi and the pork seasonings. I was disappointed with some of the flavors of the dish when I tried ordering it again on my second visit. The dish was missing an extra kick, which made me wonder whether they left something out. I will not give up on Mill Korean or the bibimbap, however. My first memories of the dish are enough to sustain me until next time when I’m sure the kitchen will get it right again.
The Mill Korean Restaurant
New York, NY 10025