NYC’s Most Exciting New Fine Dining Restaurant Is in a Subway Station

At the Korean-influenced Nōksu, where meals start at $225, the entrance is on the way to the F train.

(Bloomberg) — If you’re standing on the corner of 32nd Street and Broadway, there are several directions you can go to quickly find something good to eat. Walk East, and take your pick of innumerable Korean dining options, from dumplings to barbecue to bubble tea. Go a few streets downtown and you’ll have Mediterranean mezze at chef Jose Andrés’s newest NY restaurant, Zaytinya. A few blocks uptown is one of the city’s seminal dining rooms for meat eaters, Keens Steakhouse.

Soon, diners will be able to follow an unexpected path to one of the city’s best new big-deal meals: They can walk down the subway stairs and into Nōksu, the new fine dining Korean-influenced spot.

New Yorkers and tourists will both be familiar with this not-particularly lovely and well-trafficked entrance to the 34th Street Herald Square station, which is convenient for everyone from Penn Station commuters to Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade fans. Before the pandemic, it ranked No. 3 as the city’s busiest subway station with more than 39 million annual passengers.

Nōksu, which is slated to open Sept. 21, is located on what counts as the mezzanine level of the station, behind a grungy area that used to be home to an in-and-out barber shop and a newspaper stand. 

The space has been expanded and transformed into a pristine, brightly lit dining room with a minimalist kitchen that could double as a lab, and  walls decorated in varying patterns of black, white and gray. (Claire Soojin Kim’s design of the space was inspired by Korean monochrome ink-and-wash paintings.) A long, 12-seat black granite counter with undulating white stripes running across it anchors the room. Behind the counter is chef Dae Kim, who has the elegant features and spiked hair of a BTS band member, and a resume that includes stints at the three-Michelin-star Per Se and at the modern Chinese hideaway Silver Apricot in Greenwich Village.

The explosion of the Korean dining scene around New York is arguably the city’s most exciting food news of the past few years.

At Naro, which opened last fall as part of the Rockefeller Center rockstar restaurant line up, Junghyun and Ellia Park offer an eight-course, $165 menu centered on the food of their homeland. The couple has gotten worldwide attention for their exceptional townhouse restaurant Atomix in Nomad, where the $395 menu goes deep on Korean cuisine; it’s currently ranked No. 8 on the World’s 50 Best List. At the two-year-old Mari in Hells Kitchen, a tasting of kimbap—Korean-styled hand rolls, most of them filled with high-end seafood—starts at $145.

Bloomberg Pursuits got a preview of his innovative restaurant and a chance to sample some of the 15-course menu that will start at $225, not including tax and tip.

I had dreamed of arriving at Nōksu via the subway entrance. But the black iron gate was still firmly locked when I went to check it out in July. So I went a more conventional way: The restaurant is based on the lower level of the Martinque New York on Broadway, part of Curio Collection by Hilton. Walking across the lobby and down a staircase will also get you to the restaurant, whose physical address is 49 W. 32nd St.

From my tall grey cushioned stool, I watched Kim do fast work with tweezers, dipping them again and again into a large shallow bowl. He was arranging small, oval, fried-potato slices into thin petals to top a delicate egg custard, known as  gyeran-jjim in Korea, and a little stew of chewy surf clams in a bright green herb sauce. It looked like an enchanting golden chrysanthemum and, with a garnish of caviar, tasted like an exceptional version of chips and dip. 

The chef’s obsession with flowers also results in a smart little dish he serves near the beginning of the meal, of Japanese crab kegani in an exquisite little tartlet that also happens to look like a multi-petaled flower, filled with the creamy innards of the crab and turnip.

Kim was born outside Seoul, but started his culinary career in the US, learning from cookbooks. His dishes are notably stunning, even at a moment when it’s impossible to find a chef who isn’t paying attention to how their dish looks. He clearly stalks the Union Square Greenmarket, buying every tiny edible flower he can get his hands on. He and his three-person kitchen crew spend hours prepping ingredients for whimsical presentations: a dish of an amadai (tilefish) fillet, arranged with clams as the tail, to look like a fish diving into the water, for instance. The intense prep work belies the fact that Kim is literally cooking without gas. Because of its underground location, the kitchen cooks on induction burners and with a combi oven, and has several raw preparations.

In a later dish, Kim spotlights shiny skinned slices of mackerel, Korea’s favorite fish, served warm with chunks of nutty celtuse and a sweet sake-spiked carrot sauce. And he has a handroll of venison, in a nod to the meat-heavy Korean diet, packed with herbs and accompanied by thick beet gochujang, the intense, all-purpose Korean sauce.  For dessert he offers a delicately flavored frozen flan flavored with honey and dill pollen and topped with a sorbet made with chamoe, the Korean melon.

The wine program, formulated by general manager John Parsons, features bottles from cool climates like Germany, Austria and California’s North Coast, to balance the subtle flavors of the menu; a pairing will go for $175. There’s also notably good non-alcoholic pairing options from beverage director Alex Truong that run the gamut from booze-free cocktails—some made with Korean ingredients like woojeong green tea—to bottles like the German Kolonne Null sparkling non-alcoholic wine; the non-alcoholic pairing will cost $95. 

But back to the restaurant’s subway entryway: Diners will need a keypad code to get into the restaurant, says Joseph Ko, a co-owner of Nōksu with Bobby Kwak, who also have the the popular bi-level Baekjeong Korean BBQ spot nearby. They are well aware that the transit entrance will also be accessible to people in the subway who aren’t necessarily looking to sit down and pay for fine dining. They’re also outfitting the subway entrance with security cameras, and a Ring doorbell system to see the guests at the door, and considering a security guard. But even with the keypad interruption, it’s an entrance that’s guaranteed to delight diners looking for gimmicks to go with their meal, when the black gates are finally rolled up.

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