Soogil – good timing


A version of this article about a Manhattan Korean that recently got its wine act together is also published by the Financial Times. 

When is the best time to visit a restaurant? 

This is a perennial problem for me and is one to which the answer is not always obvious. Never go too early is invariably my policy as the staff have to find their feet and the pans develop some flavour to add to the ingredients’ own. But such is demand for the new, that inevitably readers are looking for views on recently opened establishments rather than nothing but the tried and tested.

Also, any good restaurant is always evolving, always (one hopes) improving, always seeking to make it a better experience for the customer in ways that are not necessarily obvious nor constitute something that can be shouted about in an email or press release.

Hence our good fortune in the timing of our visit to Soogil, a principally Korean restaurant that opened in January 2018 on East 4th Street, in New York’s East Village. This was a meal in which the chef Soogil Lim produced dishes of exceptional quality, at the exceptionally good price of US$65 for his 10-course tasting menu that justified everything we had heard about him and his simply decorated restaurant. [Michael Skurnik reports that in early January the price was only $55 – a snip – JR]

But what also distinguished this meal was a recent innovation from Hak Soo Kim, a sommelier friend of Lim’s who acts as his wine advisor and ensured the quality of the wines that were offered. These included by-the-glass offerings of Raventós y Blanc’s 2016 sparkling wine from Penedès; the Village bottling of Kumeu River 2016 New Zealand Chardonnay; a half-bottle of excellent rioja, Viña Ardanza Reserva 2008 Rioja; and glasses of Ostertag Riesling 2015 from Alsace and a Barbaresco 2016 from Adriano.

All this considerably added to the pleasure of eating at Soogil, as did the timing of our reservation. The night before our day flight back to London we decided to eat early, as so many New Yorkers do, to ease the coming jet lag and so walked in at 5.30 pm as the restaurant staff were putting the final touches to the place for the evening service.

We therefore had time to enjoy the tasting menu, an experience that I tend to ignore because, invariably, these are generally served only to the whole table and therefore tend to provide less of a culinary challenge for any kitchen. In particular, tasting menus tend to offer less contrast and therefore less for me to write about.

It is the chef, Soogil Lim, who gives his name to the restaurant. A former biology major, Soogil was converted to hospitality when he saw a sign that said ‘cooking can make you happy'. There then followed a decade of hard slog, first at the Culinary Institute of America in New York then in the kitchens of Daniel, the city’s prestigious French restaurant where he rose to be the restaurant’s first Korean sous chef. From there he borrowed the principle of using his Christian name for his own restaurant and also many of the French techniques he had come to master.

We began with a refreshing salad of aster, the edible flower, and tofu that was distinguished by the addition of small pieces of extremely crisp sweet onion. This was followed by a very Korean dish of yellowtail sashimi, another dish made special, this time by the addition of pickled chanterelles. Throughout the meal the quality of the pickled vegetables was to be a highlight.

There then followed two dishes that owed more than a nod to France. First of all there was a square of toast supporting a creamy foie gras terrine, made from Hudson Valley foie gras, and then a dish described simply as ‘sweet potato’. This proved to be four perfectly round beignets, or fritters, straight out of the deep fryer, made of Korean sweet potato next to a small bowl of chilled kimchi. This traditional Korean staple, made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables, had here been transformed into a luscious, refreshing soup.

There followed a more conventional dish of noodles and a rich mouthful of mackerel sitting on top of a finger of rice wrapped in Swiss chard, before Soogil really hit his stride with two very different dishes. The first was an oil-poached piece of cod with clams, a dish that would not look out of place on a Daniel menu. The second was two small slices of very tenderly braised pork belly whose fatiness was cleverly offset by kimchi rolls and a spicy shrimp sauce.

We were left speechless when the final course arrived, a braised veal shank, so generous that we could barely do it justice. But happily we had left room for dessert, one for which Soogil and his kitchen team obviously have the appropriate touch. While a tart, of excellent pastry, was full of a creamy passion fruit curd and mango, this was overshadowed by a variation of ‘churros’, smaller and hollow, with a honey and chestnut ice cream that was irresistible.

The final ingredient in our happiness came in meeting the happy Soogil. In a small restaurant, with an even smaller kitchen, it is eminently possible for the chef to greet his customers and make them feel at home, a role that the charming Soogil obviously relishes. Having paid my bill of US$310 for two including wine, service and tax, we left with a smile on our faces too. And it was still only 8 pm, if 1 am in London.

Soogil 108 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003: tel +1 (646) 838 5524