UPDATE: Sadly, due to health issues concerning chef Gary Robins, MoKo has closed. It will reopen as Gyenari 2 (G2) on September 1, offering a “less expensive and more accessible option” with “all-you-can eat-Korean BBQ and a lively happy hour.” READ ON FOR THE ORIGINAL REVIEW of this short-lived yet highly impressive restaurant …
Remember Gyenari, the big Korean BBQ restaurant in Downtown Culver City? It was an OK option for those who wanted to get their grill on with lots and lots of meat. But now the very same space (with the same owners) is home to MoKo, a decidedly different dining destination that is delivering the most delicious — and certainly the most beautiful — Korean food I’ve ever had.
Contrary to my initial thought when I first heard the name — “OMG, who would name their restaurant after a booger?!” If you spell it with a ‘c’ it means booger in Spanish slang — MoKo is actually short for Modern Korean. And oh how sweet (and spicy and robust and satisfying) it is. Chef Gary Robins has long been considered a culinary maestro by critics and customers alike and now I know why. The former chef of NYC’s famed Russian Tea Room and The Biltmore Room Restaurant has a way with Asian flavors that brings out the complexities and freshness of every ingredient. And when most of the stuff comes from the farmers’ market, you know that’s a good thing.
As soon as the banchan arrived I knew this wasn’t gonna be another run-of-the-mill production. These things were gorgeous. The namuls alone were worth a visit. Watermelon namul (already a break with tradition since namul is usually a vegetable dish) was at once refreshing and biting with bright, juicy pieces of fruit punctuated with chili, mint and toasted almonds. Kong namul (bean sprouts) was equally delicious with a totally different profile of spring onions, sesame and soy. And those honey-braised lotus roots? To live for.
Soon after, we moved on to just about everything else on the menu. Admittedly, I needed some help navigating what seemed like a million options. The clipboard menu, with its multiple sections, was a little daunting but our server helped us figure it out and offered great suggestions. The apricot-glazed ginger chicken skewers reminded me a little of a peanut-less satay, sort of flattened meat with delicious seasoning, while the bao bun sandwiches were flavorful and spongy. As for the hoeh (raw) stuff, I recommend the salmon with black garlic, ginger and wasabi oil, and the hamachi, which is served atop a yuzu citrus foam with pickled jalapenos (a surprise for my Mexican palate!) and crisp garlic.
Of course, I had to order some jeon … Korean pancakes. Forget buttermilk. These things are made with potatoes that are crisped to perfection. If I had asked for a plain version with a little ketchup on the side, I’m convinced it would have been the ultimate hash brown experience. (A very close second would be the gigantic hash brown at Morton’s Steakhouse.) See the above picture of the grilled shrimp and sesame tomato chutney jeon (which is actually called the zucchini and golden squash cake on the menu)? Do yourself a favor and order it. It tastes even better than it looks. Incidentally, those who like their Korean BBQ will be glad to know that MoKo still has those center grills at each table just like they did when this place was Gyenari, so if you want to heap it on old-school, you certainly can. I didn’t try it, but I have a feeling that chef Robins could even make that seem like a whole new experience.
More info: www.mokosocial.com