I went to the most affordable Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City and was blown away

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA bowl of so ramyun at Jeju Noodle Bar.

Chef Douglas Kim, 41, has helmed the ship at Jeju Noodle Bar since he opened it in September 2017. He started cooking in 1999, and cut his teeth at big-name restaurants including Bouley, Zuma, and Nobu.

However, that’s not what Kim wanted to talk about when I sat down with him before dinner service on Halloween – nor did he want to talk about his time in the kitchens at any of the other Michelin-starred restaurants he’s worked at, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare and Per Se.

Instead, Kim wanted to talk about noodles.

Jeju Noodle Bar is a New York City restaurant located on the corner of Greenwich Avenue and Christopher Street in Manhattan’s West Village.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderThe facade at Jeju Noodle Bar in Manhattan’s West Village.

The restaurant is in the former space of Nighthawks, a restaurant that tipped its hat to the famous Edward Hopper painting by the same name. While the exact location of where the painting is based off is debated, the similarity is undeniable.

A painting done in the same style as Nighthawks, but with a Jeju twist, hangs inside the restaurant.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA painting hanging on the wall at Jeju Noodle Shop.

“Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by ‘a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,'” The Art Institute of Chicago says on its website. “But the image – with its carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative – has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale.”

The interior of Jeju Noodle Bar is modern and well-lit, and features ample seating at the bar and tables.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderThe interior of Jeju Noodle Bar.

As you walk through the doors and the large curtain used to keep the heat in, you’re greeted by a host at a podium who seats you.

The restaurant does take some reservations, but according to its website, only “very limited reservations” are available on RESY and OpenTable.

Chef Douglas Kim, 41, has helmed the ship at Jeju Noodle Bar since he opened it in September 2017.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderChef and owner of Jeju Noodle Bar, Douglas Kim.

Kim started cooking in 1999 and has since worked at big-name restaurants, including Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Per Se, and Nobu. However, he wasn’t interested in getting nostalgic when I spoke with him before a Thursday night service.

Kim told me that while he values his past experience, he doesn’t want to be defined by them. He’s more interested in today’s challenges – namely, Jeju.

“I tried to learn everything I could from each location and absorb it and take it as my own way – that’s the reason that I didn’t stay in one cuisine for a long time,” the chef explained. “I moved around a little bit. At each location, I had a certain goal to achieve.”

Kim told Insider he opened Jeju because he wanted to elevate instant ramyun and promote Korean cuisine as a whole.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderPatrons eat at the bar at Jeju Noodle Bar.

“I always liked noodles, especially Japanese ramen,” Kim explained. “So I thought, ‘What can I do in order to open something quick that’s genuine and eye-catching?'”

Kim has never worked in a ramen shop or noodle restaurant, but the idea to open Jeju came to him while he was eating noodles.

“I always wanted to open a Korean restaurant,” he explained. “There are already a lot of good ramen shops in New York City. I would have been crushed. When I look at ramen, I know that while it came from Japan, Korea is the number one consumer of instant ramen in the world.”

Kim explained that at first, getting the attention of the NYC dining scene was a struggle. Once Jeju got a Michelin star, however, everything changed.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderChef Douglas Kim of Jeju Noodle Bar and I chat at a table.

“I think the trends of the restaurant scene and the New York dining scene started to change in 2016,” Kim said. “People don’t want to spend time in fine dining restaurants anymore.”

“Of course, there will be people who want to celebrate something, but you’re not going to go to a four-star, New York Times restaurant or a three Michelin-starred restaurant every day. Average people probably go there once in their lifetime,” he added.

Jeju Noodle Bar received one star in both the 2019 and 2020 Michelin guides.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderThe 2019 Michelin plaque at the entrance of Jeju Noodle Bar.

Kim said that receiving the first Michelin star was a life-saver.

“You can be the hottest restaurant last month, but people will forget about you in a month,” he said. “But after we got a Michelin star, it changed our life. People started to understand what we were trying to do. The only person who understood before that was Pete Wells of The New York Times.”

Kim thinks highly of Pete Wells, and agreed with many aspects of his two-star review of Jeju in The New York Times – even the not-so-nice remarks about the level of service, which Kim said has since been fixed.

“I try to take criticism seriously and learn from it,” Kim said. “We used to get so many comments that we were trying to be a Japanese noodle shop, and we used to get a lot of criticism from Korean people. After Michelin, people started to agree, they were like, ‘Now you’re cool.'”

Kim told me that accessibility is one of the most important aspects of running a restaurant.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderChef Douglas Kim of Jeju Noodle Bar.

“People are very sensitive to price changes,” he said. “A lot of items that people think we charge too much for are because food costs can be up to 60%. When you look at other restaurants, this wouldn’t make sense. If the cost of the food is not accessible, then maybe we’re doing something wrong,”

Kim said that at the end of the day, he just wants people to come to Jeju and enjoy the experience. He also explained how the word “cheap” is relative.

“When we opened, the dream was to get a Michelin star,” he said. “We wanted to be cheap and reasonable, but lots of people thought it was still expensive. After we got the Michelin star, everyone thought, ‘Wow, you’re so cheap.'”

Jeju didn’t raise prices after it received the Michelin star, and according to Kim, prices will only rise according to market prices of ingredients, labour costs, and rent prices.

The first dish I tried during my visit to Jeju was the toro ssam bap ($US25) made with fatty tuna tartare, Korean egg salad, and tobiko rice. Toasted seaweed squares act as mini wraps, ssam-style.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderToro ssam bap ($US25) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

At $US25, the toro ssam bap is the second-most expensive appetizer you can get at Jeju, and according to Kim, it happened by accident.

“We used to have a tuna yukke dish, which uses a leaner cut of tuna, but then we were struggling to figure out what to do with the extra fat,” he said. “At the time, we couldn’t buy uni, but I wanted to have that uni texture.”

Kim said that at the time, his kitchen was throwing away lots of eggs that weren’t boiled correctly, so his staff meals were typically egg-heavy.

“My chef de cuisine was making a staff meal of fried rice and egg salad every day. I had to do something with eggs, so we did egg salad, toro, rice, and that’s it. It took me 30 minutes to come up with the dish, and it turned out to be one of the most popular.”

Though the toro ssam bap is one of the most popular dishes on the menu, it’s not Kim’s go-to.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderToro ssam bap ($US25) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

“Personally, it’s not my favourite, but people love it,” he said.

Kim told me the reason that the dish isn’t his favourite is that the toro is so delicious on its own, it’s almost like cheating.

“The reason I don’t like it is that it’s too easy,” he explained, laughing. “But people like it, so it’s OK!”

The toro ssam bap was rich and delicious — a running theme at Jeju. The fatty tuna melted into the egg salad and rice immediately, and it tasted incredible.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderToro ssam bap ($US25) wrapped in seaweed at Jeju Noodle Bar.

Kim explained that in order to get the most out of the toro ssam bap, customers should use a spoon to scoop chunks of the dish from the top down, making sure to get a bit of each layer before popping the spoonful into a seaweed wrap, and placing the whole thing in your mouth to make sure all of the flavours are present.

Next up were the Jeju chicken wings ($US14), served with crudités, umami salt, lime, and Jeju dip.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderJeju chicken wings ($US14) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

The Jeju chicken wings were a mix of drumsticks and flats – flats being my personal favourite – and were served on a bed of veggies and garnishes.

The wings were some of the crispiest I’ve had, and the garlicky Jeju dip was flavorful but not overwhelming.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderThe wings were crispy and delicious.

The best part about these wings wasn’t the crunchy, crispy outer breading or the delicious accompanying dip, it was how thoroughly juicy they were. The lime was also a great touch.

Before the main dishes, Kim explained the difference between ramen and ramyun, as well as the unwritten agreement he has with his noodle supplier.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderChef Douglas Kim of Jeju Noodle Bar.

“Ramyun is our way of saying ‘ramen’ in Korean,” Kim told me. “We take original Korean food as our inspiration. That’s the key difference – we’re not trying to copy Japanese ramen. They always have a similar formula. Here, we have no particular style. We just come up with brand new recipes based on what we think is going to work.”

Kim said that Jeju originally used a noodle that his cooks said was Japanese-style.

“I didn’t want to hear that,” he said. “I wanted to have a little bit of instant noodle texture, even though the noodles are fresh.”

Kim said he has a deal with a noodle company – a sort of unwritten non-compete agreement – where they need to get his permission to sell the specific noodles they make for Jeju to another restaurant.

The first bowl of noodles I tried was the so ramyun ($US19) made with veal broth, “soo yuk” brisket, scallion, pickled garlic chips, and garnished with a few slices of raw Wagyu beef.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA bowl of so ramyun ($US19) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

The noodles smelled and looked amazing. The soft-boiled egg was a light-brown colour from marinating in sauce.

Kim explained that the broth at Jeju is made by skimming impurities and excess fat from the surface as the liquid cooks, a prevalent technique in Korean cooking.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA bowl of so ramyun ($US19) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

“In Korean culture, skimming is very important,” he explained. “A big difference between us and a Japanese ramen shop is that they incorporate the fat into the broth. However, in Korean culture, we do a lot of skimming in the process. I want to follow that tradition.”

Kim explained to me that if you left the fat in the broth, it would become richer, but it wouldn’t be as healthy.

The so ramyun was the perfect dish for a cold night. The rich veal broth was packed with different flavours, including the runny egg yolk and the mushrooms, and the noodles were springy and held the broth well.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderMe, slurping up some noodles, enjoying life.

Two of my favourite parts of this dish were the spongey mushrooms and the Wagyu beef garnish. But noodle lovers, be warned: the thin slices of beef cook quickly if allowed to fully submerge in the broth, so act fast.

Last was the gochu ramyun ($US18), made with spicy pork broth, pork belly, white kimchi, sauce “ko” mericaine, charred scallion oil, lettuce, mushrooms, and a poached egg.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA bowl of gochu ramyun ($US18) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

Kim has some advice for picking which kind of noodles to eat on any given day. First, he said, check the weather.

“If I see gloomy weather, I’ll get a spicier, gochu ramyun,” he explained. “If it’s a clear day, the fish coop, and if it’s cold outside, the so ramyun.”

Though Kim’s personal favourite dish is the fish coop ($US17.50), most customers say the so ramyun is Jeju’s signature dish, which Kim is OK with.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be 100% satisfied with the food that I make,” he told me. “I think it’s better that way. You don’t get an ego. Once you think your food is the best, you can get a very big head.”

The gochu ramyun was superb. The generous dollop of spicy red paste that sits on top of the noodles might look intimidating, but the dish was balanced so the level of spice didn’t detract from the other flavours.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderMe, in a state of noodle-induced euphoria.

My favourite part of this dish was the white kimchi. It added the perfect amount of funky, fermented flavour to the dish, and the acidic cabbage perfectly cut the spicy pork broth.

“If you look at the gochu ramyun, it’s not regular spicy kimchi, because we don’t want to overwhelm it with heat,” Kim explained. “We have no rules, but as long as we take our inspiration from Korean food, that’s the most important thing.”

Kim said that people often come into Jeju and other Michelin-starred restaurants with unrealistic expectations.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderA close-up shot of the gochu ramyun ($US18) at Jeju Noodle Bar.

“Now that we’ve got a Michelin star, people come here expecting to have a mind-blowing experience, but I don’t want people coming here expecting to have a ‘foodgasm,'” he told me. “What we try to do is make good, quality products in an honest way.”

He also offered a warning to potential customers that might be more interested in how their food will appear on Instagram.

“The ‘foodies’ that come here with social media, this might not be the place for you,” he said. “The food scene is changing toward more photogenic food. We’re not about that. We’re all about flavour.”

My dinner at Jeju was excellent. The food was delicious and affordable — my two-person meal came out to $US91.20 after I tacked on a 20% tip.

Hollis Johnson/InsiderThe sign at Jeju Noodle Bar.

Like all restaurants, the cost of a meal varies significantly depending on what dishes you order, and often on how much you decide to drink.

If I had been dining alone and ordered the Jeju chicken wings ($US14) and gochu ramyun ($US18), my check, with a 20% tip, would be just $US38.40, which is not bad for a Michelin-starred restaurant in the West Village.

But while affordability is certainly a pillar of Jeju’s continued success, that doesn’t mean the cooking is cheap or sparse. No, the cooking at Jeju is the opposite. It’s full of Korean tradition, Kim’s personality, and most of all, layers and layers of flavour.

So next time you visit the city, consider giving Jeju Noodle Bar and its slew of excellent Korean ramyuns a try.

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