Haenyeo, Brooklyn: ‘An evolved take on the Korean repertoire’

In the international restaurant scene, London is now a match for New York, but this Korean restaurant is setting the pace

Haenyeo, 239 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York (001 718 213 2290). Small plates $10-$15; large plates $18-$34; desserts $9; wines from $42

A couple of weeks ago, at a jaunty restaurant called Quality Eats on East 28th Street in Manhattan, I was served an outrageous dish of thick-cut sweet-cure bacon on a savoury puddle of crunchy peanut butter, with a spiky jalapeño jelly and diced cucumber. It felt like a take on a breadless peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With added bacon, always a good idea. It also felt like culinary self-parody – a big, bold, edible New York joke. If any British chef would like to nick this joke, I’d be grateful because I’d like to laugh at it again.

Identifying the differences between the restaurants of New York and London is rarely straightforward these days. For a long time, New York’s restaurants felt to me like the cooler elder sibling; the one who was listening to all the right bands and wearing all the right clobber and smoking in just the right way, a Marlboro Red dangled from the lip, just so. We, meanwhile, were trying to imitate, clumsily. These days, not so much. Ahead of my week in America, I asked various New York friends for tips. I ended up thumbing my way through the websites of restaurants offering various permutations of small-plate, rustic Mediterranean cooking with the occasional, festering, fermented Nordic tinge. So far, so Peckham.

Not that I didn’t eat well. I did. It was a joy to see the venerable Union Square Cafe, my go-to refuge from first-night jet lag, still being brilliant despite its forced move from the original Union Square location by urban development. Their bruiser of a Berkshire pork chop with braised sauerkraut and celeriac purée deserves its own Instagram account. Ditto, fried chicken, spicy beef sausage and waffles for brunch at the original Red Rooster in Harlem and the extraordinarily complex monster of a bird served to me by chef James Kent at Crown Shy down in the financial district. The chicken had been aged, massaged, brined, marinated and probably taken to Lincoln Center for some serious jazz, before being roasted and served with hot sauce. I loved the oily crisp breads, the gossamer ravioli and the onglet served rare by River Café alumni and British expat Jess Shadbolt, at the crowded and intimate King in SoHo.

Two observations. While there’s some great service in London, it is generally still better in New York: engaged without being stalkerish, efficient without being rushed. But oy, you pay for it. Eating out, particularly in Manhattan, is excruciatingly expensive right now and not just because of the exchange rate. Everywhere seemed to work out at $80 a head minimum and don’t go looking for bargains on the wine list (many of which seem to have swung away from domestic bottles back to the old world. California must be seething. But then, where New York is concerned, California often is.)

Going to Park Slope in Brooklyn, where so much restaurant action is located, didn’t soften the financial blow. It was still a $200 dinner for two. But it did introduce me to something new, an evolved take on the Korean repertoire. London’s Korean restaurants, like the very lovely Your Mum’s Kitchen that I reviewed a few weeks ago, generally offer the grand standards. Haenyeo, named after the amazing women who free dive for seafood off the coast of South Korea, is chef Jenny Kwak’s take on the cooking with which she grew up.

Here in this narrow, dimly lit space where, come evening, a smartphone torch might help the more senior of us with the menu, she cooks a playful collection of dishes without ever losing sight of the essentials. Some are familiar. We have thick slices of barbecued beef short rib, clinging to an eye of bone, in a fiercely hot, cast-iron skillet. It is served with ssam, or crunchy lettuce leaves with which to wrap them, alongside the big-shouldered encouragement of a ssamjang, a salted chilli paste to send the whole package on its way.

Other things are new to me. I adore the punch of wilted swiss chard, served warm, seasoned with pungent miso and topped with crisp, salty anchovies and pine nuts. Slices of raw flounder – fluke in these parts – are presented so prettily it feels almost a shame to dig in. They are dressed with a pokey spiced olive oil, pickled scapes (the green sprouts thrown out by garlic) discs of Cape gooseberry and black sesame seeds. It tastes like southern Europe shaking hands vigorously with Asia. Some will find a dish of a warm, set custard texturally challenging. I find it intensely comforting, and love the way the topping of shiny, orange salmon roe and sea urchin jolts me every time they arrive on to my spoon.

We are brought some brilliant red kimchi made from cabbage and a funkier version involving cucumber. There is a bowl of tiny, pungent, crisped anchovies and, to cool things down, a scoop of a herb-flecked tofu. The star of the night is a generous chunk of sablefish which has been simmered and then sautéed in sweet, dark garlic-enriched soy full of hefty caramel tones. The skin, the colour of night, is crunchy and sweet-savoury. It gives way to pearly flakes of sweet, butter-soft white fish.

To finish there is a perfectly judged crème brûlée flavoured with just the right amount of sesame, and a flourless warm fondant-style chocolate cake with a centre of pure, molten fruity cocoa darkness. A plate of pillow-like, icing sugar-dusted beignets, served hot, is only surplus to our requirements because of what has gone before. There are only three desserts; it would have been rude not to order all of them.

As in many other places the short wine list is, bar a couple of bottles from California, entirely European and entirely distressing for European wallets. There is nothing below $42, for a pretty bog-standard pinot grigio. These are the kind of opening prices I moan about in Mayfair, but they are being charged here, a good 30 minutes out of central Manhattan. See. I’ve changed country and city. I’ve rhapsodised about the terrific food. But I’m still moaning about the bloody winelist. The location may change but apparently, I don’t.

This restaurant was reviewed before the current crisis forced so many closures. It’s important we continue to celebrate the pleasure restaurants give us while we await their reopening

News bites
With restaurants forced to close, many chefs, restaurateurs and food supply businesses are coming up with innovative ways to keep trading. Here are a few of them.

Le Bab, a kebab restaurant in London’s Covent Garden, has reopened the kitchens to run as a not-for-profit organisation called the London Restaurant Co-operative, enabling chefs and waiters to keep working. They’ll be producing one vegan and non-vegan dish a day, for delivery, firstly local to the restaurant with expansion to follow. Menus will be posted daily and dishes will cost £7. For each £4 tip on top of the order, a meal will be delivered to University College Hospital, or the St Martin’s in the Fields homelessness charity (londonrestaurantcooperative.com).

Wilson’s in Bristol has set up a GoFundMe page to enable them to cook food for NHS workers on the front line (visit gofundme.com). Meanwhile, chef Tom Kerridge has expanded the butchery part of his Marlow pub, the Butcher’s Tap, into a shop selling a mixture of dry goods, home bread-making kits and ready meals. The latter are at 50% off for all NHS workers and there’s free delivery within the SL7 postcode (thebutcherstap.co.uk).

Elsewhere, another crowdfunder has been set up to support all the foodbanks in the London borough of Lambeth (gofundme.com). And Natoora, the major supplier of fresh produce to the restaurant sector has opened its industry-only app to the public in both London and New York.