Dons Bogam BBQ & Wine Bar (17 E 32nd St, New York, Phone: 212-683-2200, http://www.donsbogam.com) is considered a top tier Korean bbq restaurant of New York city. Given the important community of Koreans in the city and the fierce competition between local Korean restaurants , it is easy to imagine the efforts that a top tier Korean bbq eatery is forced to deploy: here, at Dons Bogam, the bulgogi is not prepared in advance in the kitchen. They cook it from scratch at your table. The quality of the cooking and the ingredients is also superior to what you will find at most Korean bbqs in NYC. Dons Bogam is a perfectly legit/genuine Korean bbq restaurant, except that it is a bit more upscale (prettier interior, better choices of wines, etc) that most of its peers in New York.
For the barbecued meats, we chose the marinated jumbo shrimps (the marinade was not spicy, its intent was not to overwhelm the flavor of the shrimp but to help the quality shrimp to speak for itself and that worked well), quality is also the main feature of the prime Jumulleok meat (marinated rib eye), which marinade paled a bit compared to how some other kbbq spots have marinated theirs in NYC (less flavorful, the sweetness standing as a distraction, not an enhancement, to the flavor of the beef, whereas sweet marinades of this sort went well with rib eye at other kbbq spots in nyc ), but the spicy short ribs (Maeun Galbi) managed to put a smile on the faces of both my girlfriend and myself because it managed to be what it had to, meaning tasting delicious, meatily delicious ;). Rib eye can and should be ..meatily delicious, too, that is why, as long as they do not change its marinade, I will not order that marinated prime Jumulleok again. Dons use charcoal (though, you will not smell charcoal and there will not be smokes of charcoal to espy — it is the way the table top grilling’ venting system is designed ) for his barbecue meats, which is my preference.
The banchan (side dishes that come with your barbecued meat) comprised, on the evening I was there, of Potato salad/Pajeori (shredded green onion)/black beans/baechu kimchi (cabbage kimchi)/Kongnamul (cold bean sprouts in sesame oil)/marinated salad/tiny myeolchi bokkeum (dried tiny anchovies with rice syrup and garlic) / pickled daikon radish, all made in the house and not just properly – but well executed. That is a difference I always insist on, because whenever you see me writing ´properly’ without any extra mention, think of ‘ safe reproduction of a recipe, but nothing more’, which is not the case here. In this case, you get the taste of what real Chefs with genuine skills can do. There was not one single miss in the Marinade, the pickling and the fermenting. There was crunch where it needs to be, and seasoning that is always well balanced. The genuine flavors of South Korea (the sole compromise is that it is a refinement on rustic korean banchan with the flavors not too bold/not too spicy, but that took nothing away from the traditional South korean flavors ) were always in evidence. That said, and this is not nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking, perhaps the addition of some Musaengchae (sweet and sour radish salad) would have been a good idea as I was missing another banchan or two that it is practical/ fun to wrap with the meat in the lettuce leaf that is served for that purpose. Yes, the shredded green onions, the pickled radish were there for that purpose, but another banchan of the like of the Musaengchae would have been even better, and more importantly, necessary. Still, this was an array of flawlessly executed nibbles well deserving of an 8/10 , with condiments and sauces that are examples of what you should be looking for (the ssamjang, to take an example, is of top flight execution).
To continue to test the skills of the kitchen (obviously, it is not the bbq meat that will reveal anything about the skills of the kitchen), we ordered the fried dumplings. If you have any doubt about a cook and want him to get a taste of what a skilled Chef is capable of, bring that dude here and have him taste this fried airy delicious dumpling. A first-rate fried dumpling with texture and taste that is hard to improve upon. 9/10
The test of the kitchen could have stopped with that superb fried dumpling, but I went ahead testing a South Korean staple that I know well and do enjoy a lot, the Kimchi bulgogi (kimchi/ground beef/steamed rice/vegetables/onions) served in a hot stone pot. Again, the flavors, the seasoning, the rice, the red pepper paste that served as the condiment to the dish, the quality of the ingredients, the precise timing of the grilling process of the meat, all were of a high level of technical preparation and execution ( as everything that was cooked all along this meal) and quality and it was genuinely as South Korean as it can be miles away from the motherland, only it was more refined than your usual mom and pop beef kimchi bulgogi rice dish. 8/10
Pros: Indeed, a classy Kbbq with TRUE skilled Chefs, who are cooking for real, and not just “safely replicating recipes to make a buck”. It sounds funny to put it that way, alas there are so many fake kitchen brigades out there that it will become increasingly important to explicitly segregate the fake from the real. Also: One rare kbbq spot that takes reservations, avoiding the usual long wait you will have to cope with at the other kbbqs in nyc.
Cons: (1)It is not a technical flaw, just a matter of taste, but the marinade of the Prime Jumulleok (prime rib eye) needs to better enhance the flavor of the meat. (2)Dons is not a bustling place in a way that some of the korean kbbq places in nyc are bustling, and that is not a criticism (I chose Dons for that characteristic), but an observation I had to make in orger to get to my next point: since the fun here will not come from the ‘bustling ambience’ found elsewhere, Dons should break the rule and get the fun to come from something else. One way, for them, to achieve this, is by making the replenish of the bachan a “surprise”, meaning not the same side dishes served over and over again (they will break the rules by doing so, but this will be more fun).
Overall Food rating: 8/10 (Category: Top tier Korean bbq in North America) – As expected from a Kbbq spot of this reputation, in a TRUE world class foodie destination of the caliber of NYC, the technique is well mastered. If you find any technical flaw here, you either have no clue of what to expect from Korean cooking or you are trying to imagine Korean food the way you want it to be.That said, there have been 1 or 2 Korean Bbq spots in North America that had marinated their rib eye in a way that I found a tad more eventful, and that also had a more interesting variety of banchans. And in case you wonder, well…No, that did not happen in Mtl (the best Kbbq place in Mtl would not even get a chance to open its doors in NYC).
Bottom line: Regardless of the fact that I slightly preferred one or two of its local competitors, I still highly recommend Dons Bogam. It is a bit pricier than most of its local peers, but you pay for higher grade meat, a classier restaurant. Dons did, obviously, not forget that people come to eat Korean food as what I was eating was South Korean (not an idea/a take on it), deliciously so, even without the bold mom-and-pop flavors (a reminder that it is not the intensity of the flavor that defines a cuisine).