Oiji

Right off the bat, I didn’t order the honey butter chips. So, if you’re looking for a photo or a description of them, I can’t help you. Apologies if that’s why you stopped by.

 

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When I made my second visit to Contra this winter and cursed myself for taking so long to return, I decided I would try to make an effort to go back to places I enjoyed and ignore the frenzy of the new and hyped. I haven’t been completely successful at the ignoring part. But the exercise in taking a moment to ask myself why it’s necessary to try a new restaurant as soon as possible (it’s not) and what would happen if I missed that early window (nothing) has been useful. It has allowed me to remember restaurants that I wanted to try ASAP, but didn’t, and assess if I still felt the pull to go. Not surprisingly, many ended up in the Whatever, Maybe One Day pile. Some have even already closed down.

One restaurant that didn’t end up in that pile was Oiji. A small, modern Korean restaurant in the East Village, Oiji received critical acclaim last year for its menu of small plates. There was hype, there was social media frenzy (Google those chips), and then as always, both quieted down. Its name in ink sat on lists of restaurants I often write for myself, but that’s as close as I got for a long time. It easily could have gone the Whatever way, but someone’s Instagram post of a new octopus dish re-piqued my interest. It also made me consider how visiting once the hype is gone and the kitchen has its stride could be the ideal time to try a place out. Obvious, but a gem of common sense that is often forgotten here.  A bonus is that making a reservation becomes infinitely easier.

The small plates trend induces an eye roll in most people (overpriced and underfed), and for someone who almost always dines alone, it’s very much always present (overpriced and overfed, or overpriced and underfed). My very friendly and sincerely helpful server suggested I go with two or three dishes, as he usually recommends five dishes for two people. Three dishes is my standard for small plates, as that number gives me a better opportunity to try a range of dishes and usually ensures I eat enough. Like at other small plates places, I wouldn’t want to share any of these dishes with more than two other people. Ideally, only one other. Only getting two to three bites would have left me very disappointed. I was happy (as usual) not to have to share.

Morel mushroom salad

I hold morels in the same regard as I do ramps; their seasonality compels me to order them whenever possible. Here, they were dredged in rice flour, I think, then fried. Their meaty chew was lightened by the crunchy radishes and lettuce and somewhat repeated by the raisins. The ginger dressing was on the sweet side, but then the pine nuts would ground you again. The play on earthy and sweet worked well as an appetizer because it offered up enough oommph to calm my hunger, but it actually was a very light dish.

“Jang-jo-rim” with buttered rice and soft-boiled egg

This little pot of rice and toppings came highly recommended, and within one spoonful of the rice (hiding in the photo), you know why: fat and fat.  My server explained that the rice is first cooked in butter, topped, and then cooked again under the salamander. The butter takes center stage, but you also get the richness of the beef fat that would have dripped down.  Then you properly mix it, kind of like a bimbimbap, and the liquid gold of the egg yolk glistens everything up. I understand this to be a traditional Korean comfort dish, something your mom might make for you after school, but it’s too deliciously complex to compare to something like a grilled cheese sandwich. We could make that comparison with the rice alone. But then there’s the pungency of the garlic, the crunch of the radish, and the slippery-ness of the mushrooms. And the beef, of course. If the serving size was bigger, I’d go back regularly for this as a one-bowl meal. Un/fortunately, they keep it small so that you can have other things.

Slow-cooked baby octopus with wild rice, butter gochujang, and perilla pesto

Errrrrybody is into octopus lately, I think even more so than beef tartare (which Oiji also serves). It’s a trend I’m okay with, as I feel for so long it was something I only saw in Greek tavernas. These tentacles were about the size of a man’s finger, and that slenderness coupled with a golden, crisped exterior had me worried they would be tough. They weren’t. I should have paid closer attention to the “slow-cooked” in the dish’s title to calm my fears. The smaller size and crispy-tender texture meant I wasn’t as confronted with Octopus as when I’m cutting discs from a two-inch wide tentacle, and I kind of liked that. It made it easier to incorporate the aromatic sauces and accompaniments with each bite. The plating was very attractive, and again, I think two’s company and three’s a crowd when it comes to sharing such a dish. The wild rice was probably overkill given the jang-jo-rim. But wild rice is a plant, isn’t it? I’m not afraid of double carbs, I just want to be most correct. And by this point during my dinner, the soju in me wanted all the carbs.

But not those honey butter chips. Oiji still seems to be banking on the novelty factor of those chips, as they recently did a daytime pop-up where they sold them from their window. I hope that it’s the rest of the menu that keeps them open and why the house was full when I came by. Based on my meal, the acclaim is warranted, and I hope to go back. I think it would make a great place to catch up with a friend, try some soju, and linger over multiple plates. Oiji isn’t a replacement for a meal in Koreatown and cannot serve as an introduction to Korean cuisine, but it is still tethered to it.  Beyond the good food, the service was attentive and almost too friendly—in that the general lack of interest and snobbery I experience so regularly at NYC restaurants has me mistrusting those who seem interested in helping you. I mean, the A/C was broken the night I was there, and because we had to be cooled off with fans instead, each table got a complimentary dish. I won’t go into all the ways (again) restaurants have ignored patrons being physically inconvenienced. Just know this moment was rare, again, almost too generous, but ever so nice. Hashtag bring back being nice.

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