Korean food in this city is synonymous with 32nd Street, that stretch from Broadway to Fifth thronged with people speaking Korean, people seeking barbecue or karaoke and confused tourists wondering how they ended up in Seoul. Just three blocks north, on 35th, there are no crowds, but one of the city’s better longstanding Korean joints, Han Bat, is there, along with some more forgettable ones. This year, Madangsui joined them.
Things started well. The Panchan, small plates served gratis at the start of a meal, were the most varied I have ever seen, from the expected kimchi, seaweed, salad, tofu and various pickled vegetables, to things I’ve never seen served free: spicy tofu stew, an omelet in a hot stone pot and Japanese-style fried fish. A seafood pancake appetizer ($9) was an elegant dish, though it was not served before our main courses. Studded with shrimp, squid and scallop, the pancake’s texture was perfect, barely greasy and loaded with spring-fresh scallions.
For entrees, our party split two meats from the barbecue section, a thick pork belly ($21) and marinated butterflied short ribs ($25), which was plenty of food for four. We knew this wasn’t going to be the finest barbecue when we first spied the pork belly, partly frozen, lean and unseasoned — it ended up tasting like jerky over the inconsistent heat of the gas grill in our table. The menu advertised charcoal, which would have added a smoky flavor to this one-note meat, but that was not to be.
After we finished half the pork belly, the waitress dumped our short ribs onto the now-underheated griddle, which couldn’t caramelize the meat before it was overdone, so we had to choose between a beefy crust or a juicy interior. Both together inside a lettuce leaf, garnished with sesame-oil salt, hot sauce and scallion was a nice compromise but not the exalted experience I’ve had in the past. It didn’t help that I was washing all this down with a nasty $10 glass of cold sake (should’ve gone with the sochu).
I still don’t understand why, if the griddle is in the table, the waitress cooks your meat, often poorly and always all at once. To Westerners not used to the rushed pacing of these meals, which my Korean companion said was common and expected, it may come off as disappointing. If you take your time, everything may get cold or tough; if you rush, it seems a waste. And Madangsui did. But from the abundance of Panchan to the high-quality, well-seasoned but poorly-cooked short ribs, I can see the promise of a great restaurant lurking beneath its flaws. Especially if you cook the bbq to your own liking.