For all of the hundreds of restaurants in L.A.'s Koreatown, tucked behind untranslated signs and inside barely marked skyscrapers, in sleek malls and dusty strip centers, the area has never had much in the way of recognizable chefs. Generations of Los Angeles Koreans and Korean Americans have been going to Ham Ji Park for pork ribs and to Masan for monkfish soup, to Ham Hung for cold buckwheat noodles and to Mountain for abalone porridge, but the cooks have been mostly behind the scenes. It's the owners who host banquets, sit on community boards and fatten the rolls of the chamber of commerce. In a restaurant culture most famous for 3 a.m. noodles and grill-your-own barbecue, there hasn't been much room for culinary celebrity.
So it has been interesting to track the rise of Jenee Kim, first at Park's BBQ, which is considered the best Korean barbecue restaurant in town, known for its beyond-prime bulgogi and rare-breed pork belly, and then at Don Dae Gam, a bare place appealing to broke college students who enjoy cheap beer and obscure cuts of pig. The last time I stopped for supper at Don Dae Gam, a waiter brought everybody in the restaurant free plates of broiled small intestine. That's just the way they roll there.
But Kim's latest restaurant, LàOn Dining, is a swank small-plates place, wedged into a mini-mall between a Vietnamese noodle shop and Don Dae Gam. The entranceway is papered with photographs of her posed with actors and K-pop stars, and walking through the black corridor into the glowing, candlelit bar is like entering a shrine. You do not find broiled pork intestine here — there are slivers of grilled abalone, seething pots of crimson octopus soup and pork-wrapped asparagus skewers instead.
The first couple of times I visited LàOn Dining, I thought of it as a sleek Korean analog to the gastropubs that were opening up everywhere in town, probably because of the bulgogi sliders and the beer. The cooking was advertised as "Korean tapas," as if Kim wanted to attract a crowd that found the concept of anju, Korean drinking food, too downscale.
LàOn is a nice place, with dark wood everywhere and gleaming metal, and blown-glass light fixtures that dribble down from the ceiling like jellyfish tentacles. When you order soju, it comes in one of those pitchers with the self-contained ice compartment that the better izakayas use for sake, and you can get a bottle of Opus One if you really want one. There is barbecue, but it's the white-glove kind, grilled over hardwood charcoal on elegant tabletop hwaros rather than the usual inset gas grills, and served in portions that may strike you as, well, Japanese. It is perfectly easy to treat the restaurant as you would a sleeker version of Beer Belly, a place to stop in for a quick drink and a plate of spicy pork belly with wild arugula.
But it wasn't until recently, during a month when I found myself eating in Koreatown at least six or seven times a week, that I realized the real value of the place: LàOn Dining may be the first modern Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, and the more jjigaes and jiris and jjims I was eating at traditional restaurants, the more I was craving Kim's streamlined version of the food.
Once you get past the tapas thing, Kim's best dishes here seem to be miniaturized versions of classics from the Joseon-era royal kitchen, a highly codified system of cooking from Korea's long golden age that is basically the country's haute cuisine.
So, yook hwe, the dish of raw, hand-slivered beef tossed with Korean pear and sesame oil, is reinterpreted as a kind of sashimi — the same beef tightly wrapped in transparent slices of daikon; radish sprouts and slender spears of pear protrude from each of the thumb-size cylinders, which are also capped with a raw quail-egg yolk apiece. You pick up a roll and slide it into your mouth. The radish is crisp, the pear crunchy and sweet, and the yolk explodes against your tongue, lubricating the soft, faintly bloody flavor of the scented meat. This beef tartare has all the sensations of a classic yook hwe — the luxurious richness, the smack of toasted sesame — but choreographed into a mouthful; the one perfect chopstickful you might find if you worked through a big plate of the stuff, but expressed as a single moment of sensation.
Or consider her chilled, lightly pickled cucumber stuffed with beef, an interpretation of the banquet dish oiseon, transformed by its purity of favor and its utter freshness. Imagine ddukbokki, Seoul's famous street-food noodles crisped and moistened with garlic and soy instead of sweet chile goo. Or jeon, the egg-battered, often-soggy pancakes usually found among the banchan (small side dishes), before the meal proper, served as a course in their own right: light, crunchy fritters of sliced lotus root, sweet potato and maybe oysters or squid. There are also round jeon stuffed with minced Wagyu beef, ginseng tendrils protruding like banjo necks.
Are there weak spots on the menu? Of course. The hwaro-grilled meats are of the highest quality, but the meaty intensity is nowhere near what it is at Park's, and a bulgogi slider is a bulgogi slider. It's nice that they're attempting a dessert menu (most Korean restaurants don't), but you might as well eat the sugar-stuffed pancakes called hotteok at the Koo's cart behind the California Supermarket up on Beverly, where they are better and cost only a buck.
But you won't be trying LàOn's version of al bap anywhere else in Koreatown, sushi rice frosted with a half-dozen different kinds of fish eggs, laid out in contrasting streaks radiating from a plop of creamy sea-urchin roe at the center, served in a superheated stone bowl, or anything like this galbi jjim, delicate steamed short ribs laid over a scoop of mashed sweet potatoes and under a mesh of fried sweet potatoes, like something from a Korean Michel Richard. Kim's "seven wrap," an interpretation of the royal standard gujeolpan, a roll-your-own dish of cucumber, carrot, stewed beef, bean sprouts and other things tucked into a thin pancake, is transformed by her substitution of lightly pickled daikon slices for the crepes. It's a gujeolpan that is fresh and crisp instead of stodgy and bland.
LàOn's cuisine has a lot in common with the most fashionable cooking in California and New York at the moment. It tends to be low-fat, highly flavored and high in anti-oxidants. The emphasis on pickles and home-fermented sauces is congruent with the current fashionability of artisanal preserves. It is even relatively low in animal protein. You could take a date here without having her get skeeved out, as she might at OB Bear, or sleepy, as she might at MaDang 621. The menu is in impeccable, idiomatic English. And if you're that kind of guy, the nakji bokkum, sautéed octopus, is spicy enough to punk your friends.
A swank small-plates place that may be the first modern Korean restaurant in Los Angeles
1145 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 373-0700, laondining.com.
Small plates, $7-$12; rice and noodle dishes, $8-$12; hwaro meats, $8-$16.
Open 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 4 to 11 p.m. Sunday. Credit cards accepted. Valet parking.