On Gaonnuri’s website, it boasts the following title: “The world’s highest authentic Korean restaurant”. I can imagine somewhere on top of a skyscraper in Seoul, a chef is kicking himself for the decision to put French fries on the menu.
For the number of buildings, New York has surprisingly few rooftop restaurants. For dinner with an elevated view, your options are thin beyond Asiate. Gaonnuri is out to redefine upper class dining, and to do so its even got the character of “high/tall” in its name.
Gaonnuri sits at the gateway of Korean Town. From 33rd Street, look up and you’ll probably be able to guess which building its in, as this office tower is the only one within the vicinity that has a shot as the height claim. Compared with the busy 24 hour barbecue joints, there’s a certain level of serenity as you enter a quiet office tower, and whisk yourself up the elevator to the top floor.
One can’t help but be amazed by the interior design of Gaonnuri. The large windows and dim interior lighting draws in more of the city’s lights. The owner, or “CEO” as described on the website, is an architect by trade. The space is both functional and elegant.
On my visit late last year, there were immediately signs that this is a lofty and ambitious project by someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with the culinary mainstream. The wine list had shockingly inconsistent pricing. Certain value wines were priced at $30-40, which was the appropriate restaurant mark-up. Then there’s a bottle of Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, listed at just over $100, barely marked up. There was also not vintage on the reserve wine, perhaps if you expect people to drop over $100 on a bottle, these people might care what year the wine is from.
The cocktail program also stumbled, repeatedly. After being told there was no drink menu by one waitress, the manager swung by and recommended the special cocktails, which was then made with the wrong spirits. For such a large restaurant, a large percentage of the profit will need to come from alcohol sales, and the incompetence was a troubling sign.
The missteps about the drinks program was more frustrating because….. the food is excellent. As another manager explained as we ordered, there’s no premium for the decor or the view. Although Gaonnuri charges a higher price for many Korean favorites as compared to the ground floor Korean restaurants, they are a direct reflection of the premium materials and ingredients.
First up was the thinly sliced seared pork, with a side of vegetables wrapped in house-made white kimchi. It’s definitely a unique experience to start a meal with such a fatty cut of pork, but the marinated vegetables lent a bit of balance.
Next up is one of the signature dishes, a raw beef tartare that looked like a beef version of Jean-George’s tuna ribbon. For an appetizer, this was a lot of meat, and it was delicious. The sesame oil and soy sauce added more complexity than I anticipated. No capers needed.
Then I ordered a seafood pancake, for the sake of finding out if the penthouse version of haemul pajun would be better than the same dish at ground level. The quality of the ingredients definitely show through, though flavor wise it didn’t leave a very strong impression.
Finally, it was time to grill. The full service nature of Korean barbecue is turned up to 11 at Gaonuuri, as our waitress hovered within a few feet from the table to ensure that the meat is perfectly cooked. While I often question the merits of the “grill it yourself” restaurants, where I’m paying a premium to grill my own meat, I really much prefer to leave the cooking to the pros. Here we have a waitress cooking. Not ideal, but she was quite well trained. As for the meat, the chef did an exceptional job marinating it.
Ambitious big box projects usually start with a bang, and end in a whimper. Gaonuuri has maintained somewhat of a low profile despite its lofty ambitions, but has proved that it has much of what it takes to succeed. The food’s strong, and the the space is truly spectacular, and warrants a visit on its own, even if just for a drink. This then brings us to the problem of the drinks program, which I hope by this writing is much improved, because in this cutthroat market, it might be what it takes to keep the barbecue grilling.
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1250 Broadway Penthouse
New York, NY 10001