Williamsburg’s Dokebi is not your typical
32nd Street Korean restaurant. There are no tables of men, with
their ties thrown to the side, gobbling up hundreds of little
dishes. The service is attentive without being fawning, and no
cloud of barbecue smoke lingers in the air.
This is a new kind of Korean restaurant, according to owner Chul Kim.
"I’m serving authentic food of that country presented differently," he says. By "differently" he means that instead of the $10 serving of low-quality food accompanied by a profusion of "ban chan" (side dishes) - a typical dinner at any midtown Manhattan Korean restaurant - there are three to six small dishes that arrive with the house special barbecue. His entree servings are large; and with quality ingredients, like thin slices of Angus beef and beautiful, meaty mushrooms, lots of little add-ons aren’t necessary.
And "differently" also means not just Korean. Another Dokebi specialty is "shabu-shabu," a Japanese dish of raw meat and vegetables simmered in a large pot of boiling water that is seasoned with pieces of dried kelp, called "kombu."
Both dishes are cooked at the table. The first on a specially designed, smokeless grill built into the center of the tables that ring the large room; the soup cooks in a large pot set into the same base. That smokeless grill (manufactured and installed at great expense by Kim) means you’ll leave smelling no different than you did entering the restaurant.
Chul, a former investment banker who opened Dokebi (which means "devil" in Korean) in November, recruited a few friends who helped him gut the former social club. The crew spent 14 months ripping down five dropped-ceilings ("it was like being entombed" he said of the pre-existing dimensions) to expose 12-foot ceilings and brick walls. Chul designed and built the handsome, deep red tables and wooden benches and installed simple, industrial lighting. The result - a big dining room with an entrance on Grand Street and a bar and lounge that is separated by a small hallway with an entry onto North First Street - is more moody urban cafe than the close, smoky, Oriental dens of midtown.
Downing a shot or two of "soju," a liquor made from rice that tastes like vodka without the harsh burn, is the best way to warm up for a meal at Dokebi. There’s a full bar, so sake, Asian beer and any cocktail is available, too. Among the appetizers, the "pajun," or scallion pancake, is delectable. The chefs, Mrs. Lee and Mr. Park (formerly of Don’s Bogam in Manhattan), fry it up thin, light and crisp-edged, then stud it with tender pieces of squid, shrimp and scallops.
Crescent-shaped dumplings, "gyoza," were fried golden, but the pork filling was on the bland side.
If you want to experience a decent salad in an Asian restaurant - not the ubiquitous wilted iceberg with one-note ginger dressing - order it here. In a small bowl is a handful of watercress and a bit of romaine lettuce topped with a few thin slices of radish. It’s nothing fancy, but the peppery bite of the watercress is enhanced with a perfectly balanced, lemony carrot dressing brightened with ginger.
Don’t linger over the appetizers, though. The waitstaff tends to bring the main dishes while you’re still nibbling on the starters.
We ordered a few different meat entrees to fry on the grill. Each large serving arrived glistening in their marinades, ready for the searing heat. The meat is accompanied by another big platter topped with red leaf lettuce, watercress and a splurge of fresh mushrooms, each fungus lusciously rich after a short sit over the heat.
The soft spoken waitress showed us how to place the meat on the grill; to put the delicate mushrooms on the edges where they’d cook with less intensity; and finally, to wrap the quickly cooked morsels in a lettuce leaf, top them with one of the sauces and a bit of rice, and to eat it as we would a burrito.
My least favorite of the three barbecue dishes that we tried was the Angus ribeye. It’s a great cut of meat for this kind of cooking, thanks to its high fat content, but, oddly, not terribly flavorful. It’s served with a soybean paste sauce that has some heat - and that helped.
Like the steak, the "kalbi" is made with Angus short ribs, another fatty cut. It was rich and somewhat spicy thanks to its chile-enhanced marinade. Most of the grill dishes can be ordered regular, spicy, or hot. The regular is on the subtle side, so if you want some heat, order it. The slices of pork shoulder grilled up tender with just a touch of sweetness.
As we savored our messy, spicy and chewy little rolls, we nibbled on the side dishes. I’ve had "kimchee," the pickled cabbage stewed with garlic and chiles, and it nearly blew my head off. The version here is milder by far. I’m not sure "kimchee" purists will approve, but I preferred the tamer heat. Good, too, are the garlic stems (the shoots that protrude from the tops of the bulbs) in sesame seed oil.
"Shabu-shabu" means "swish-swish" in Japanese, and that’s what you do - first dropping the mushrooms, tofu and watercress into the pot of bubbling water to flavor the soup’s broth, then swish-swishing thin slices of beef with your chopsticks for a few seconds in the liquid until they’re rare. After that, you can dip the meat into a soybean sauce with a peanut flavor, and then again into a mild "ponzu" soy sauce (consisting of "mirin" rice wine, citrus juice and bonito flakes). Wonderfully chewy noodles simmer for a minute or two in the now-seasoned stock, and when they’re ready, the noodles and soup are ladled into bowls. It’s an interactive experience that’s great for group dining.
The homemade ice cream Chul purchases from New York Gelato and Sorbet, a vendor in Williamsburg, is not to be missed. I tried three of the 12 flavors and they were light and silky with the taste of the ingredient shining through. The ginger featured chunky pieces of the crystallized root and left a warm taste in my mouth; seeds and pieces of jammy fruit made the fig a sensory pleasure; and green tea had a subtle, nut-like quality that I loved.
Dokebi is a modernist’s interpretation of the Americanized Korean restaurant. Chul’s stripped the experience of the honky-tonk associated with garment industry places, leaving just the best: great ingredients, fresh sauces and sides that don’t slam your palate with heat, and a casual room in which to enjoy it.
Dokebi (199 Grand St. between Bedford and Driggs avenues in Williamsburg) accepts American Express, MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $9-$20. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For reservations for six or more diners, call (718) 782-1424.
©2006 Community News Group
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