The Insatiable Palate Review #21: HanGawi (Midtown East, New York)

A Korean Haven for Adventurous Vegetarians

After Frank Bruni revealed his battle with gout last month, I began to wonder if I should refrain from excess eating. I have no sense of urgency to slow down because my metabolism is so fast. But learning from Papa Cho’s dramatic body transformation, I know that all the pork shoulder and the fried chicken wings aregoing to come back to haunt me at the end of my life. Better lay off the Bo Ssam and Pies n Thighs.

This week, I’m at HanGawi for their April 2012 Emperor’s Tasting Menu, consisting of 9 distinct vegetarian courses. The restaurant prides itself in providing healthy, balanced portion selections for its guests.

Our table sampled a plate of spicy baby dumplings before the tasting. The dumplings skins are moist and the filling is warm. You’ll notice that Hangawi, like many other international restaurants, tries to appeal to western diners by placing microgreens and vegetables randomly throughout the plate for presentation purposes. I absolutely despise this. It really doesn’t serve a useful purpose.  I really could have done without the broccoli arrangements.

April 2012 Prix Fixe
Emperor’s Tasting Menu

Organic Noodles in Wild Sesame Broth

The noodles (I’m assuming they are made with rice instead of flour) are served in a bland sesame broth. Instead of serving the bowl already piping hot, Hangawi decided to serve the lukewarm soup under a candle-light. It became really troublesome to enjoy the soup without the thought of my sleeves catching on fire. The spoon didn’t fit in the bowl which made it extremely inconvenient to drink the broth at the end.

Ginseng Salad with Pear, Lime and Sesame Dressing

The second selection was quite similar to house salads that are served as banchans (side dishes) that are served at any other Korean restaurants. I could have made the sesame salad dressing myself. On top of this, the ginseng added bitterness that overpowered the rest of the vegetables. However, I gorged it down and reminded myself of all the male enhancements the salad was going to provide me that night.

Spring Appetizer Platter: Stuffed Apple, Organic Tofu Steak, Grilled Abalone Mushroom & Todok Fritters

These four selections were the highlights of the night. The stuffed apple with water chestnuts was refreshing and the tofu was savory and crispy. The dodok fritters (unlike the ginseng) had a soft texture and a clean aftertaste. The grilled abalone mushrooms had a wonderful briny finish. I really wish they provided this on the a la carte menu.

Mini Combination of Pancakes

Here we go again. A plate of mediocre pancakes served with a scatter of carrots and chives. The pancakes arrived cold and soggy. My favorite about boochimgae (pancakes) is the crispy bits at the outer-edges. Unfortunately, it was virtually non-existent at Hangawi. I was sad.

Tofu stone Bowl Rice with Sesame Leaves, Kimchi and Condiments

New Yorkers have recently embarked the bibimbap craze in the past two years. Although I much prefer Korean fried rice to the vegetable/rice medley, the dolsot bibimbop at Hangawi is delicious. When they ask if you want it spicy, they mean “American spicy,” not “Korean spicy.” For spicy-food lovers, ask for a generous amount of gochujang (red pepper paste). I recommend scraping off all the crispy bits of rice at the bottom. It’s my favorite part of the dish.

Tofu Cheesecake and Chocolate Pudding

I was mildly disappointed with the dessert as I don’t recall Korean kings and queens feasting on chocolate and cheesecake.
By participating in the Emperor’s Tasting Menu, I expected more effort from Hangawi. Although the texture was enjoyable, the tofu cheesecake was over-sweetened and the pudding was mediocre. It felt like a cop out.

Although my time wasn’t very enjoyable, I completely understand why Hangawi is popular. It’s a change of pace from other loud casual-dining Korean restaurants and the ambiance is the ideal date-spot for adventurous vegetarians.  The whole peace and tranquility and “removing your shoes before y’all enter” rule add to the mysterious, idiosyncratic South Korean experience (we’re not talking about onion volcanoes here).

I support the restaurant’s conscious effort to provide an authentic Korean dining experience, but I won’t be returning unless HanGawi puts all of the dishes on the emperor’s tasting menu on the a la carte menu. Until then, I’ll be stuffing my belly at Momofuku Ssam and Danji.

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