Step into Oiji (closed Monday, 119 First Ave., 646-767-9050) and it might remind you of many new restaurants these days, from the exposed wood interior to the Edison bulbs, communal table and sparse decoration. But it's what comes from the tiny back kitchen that sets Oiji apart. Together, chefs Brian Kim and Tae Kyung Ku of Gramercy Tavern and Bouley, respectively, offer refined, clean takes on authentic Korean cuisine. Everything is pristine; everything is beautiful. And almost everything is under $20.
Plates at Oiji are small and shareable, each deeply flavored with Korean ingredients. But the chefs use their French backgrounds to add richness in dishes like the jang-jo-rim ($10), butter-soaked rice with a soft-boiled egg, and the honey butter chips ($5) that are sweet, fatty and addicting.
You'll also notice the refined French technique in the chefs' plating. The beef tartare ($16), for example, is gently mixed in a pickled ramp aioli and topped artfully with dots of mustard seeds, pickled melon, edible flowers and an egg yolk that has been cooked sous-vide until rich and gelled. It's a dish I'd expect at any of the finest restaurants in NYC (and still under $20).
The mackerel ($14) is another win, mostly for its presentation. It's served with a tiny broom of pine needles for brushing on a soy-based sauce. I may have preferred it for breakfast on a bagel, but it was playful and a good conversation topic with my date.
I could also probably eat the cold buckwheat noodles ($10) every day. Served in a flavor-packed broth, they were slick and chewy and the preserved ramps added a delicious crunch. Ditto to the fried chicken ($13) -- a must in NYC these days -- which had the lightest, most flavorful batter I've had in a long time.
Lastly, the homemade tofu ($7) was modest -- the tiny spongy curds served in a bowl as is -- but it was strangely comforting without anything to overpower the subtle flavor of tofu made just right.
Ariel Kanter is an editor at Gilt City.