By Hannah Kaminsky
Not so far from the maddening crowds of Manhattan midtown, there sits an oasis of tranquility, hidden in plain sight. Prompted to remove your shoes before entering the dining room itself, this simple gesture simultaneously suggests that all other extraneous distractions be left at the door before proceeding. Adhering as closely to tradition as an entirely vegan Korean restaurant can, the experience of dining at Hangawi is almost as noteworthy as the food itself.
Presented as a modern temple of cuisine, it may be understandably intimidating at first glace, but waiters will kindly guide the curious, the clueless, and the seasoned eater all with equal grace. Even if you’ve never tasted kimchi before or couldn’t tell bibimbap from bulgogi, you’ll be able to find a meal that satisfies. Entering into this serene cocoon within the city, my most memorable prior experiences led me to believe that Korean food would taste somewhat like spicier Chinese takeout, which is to say homogenized, Americanized fast food. It was about time I got a new perspective on this previously foreign food culture.
Lightening the serious mood with a splash of iced tea, beverages are poured right at the table into purposefully imperfect ceramic tea cups, spacious enough to rival the pedestrian venti latte. Pomegranate Iced Tea, with its clear ice cubes sparkling within luscious crimson liquid, is a study in restrain. Tart without being aggressive, gently sweetened to take the edge off, and bearing a well-rounded fruity flavor, even such a generous pour goes down easily. Awareness of the sweltering heat and humidity just beyond those insulated walls vanished after a few restorative sips.
Diving head-first into the unknown, I was clamoring to try Todok Salad above all other dishes. Never before had this unusual root crossed my path, despite how common it seems to be in Asian cultures. Frequently described as “poor man’s ginseng,” todok has similar purported health benefits, but what I was more interested in was the taste. Fibrous yet still tender, the pale white shreds were very subtle in flavor- Mild, slightly nutty, and perhaps bearing an earthy sweetness, they proved to be an easy introduction for a meal outside my comfort zone. Paired with watercress, carrots, and dried cranberries, it would have been a pleasant enough start if not for the tide of dressing that washed away distinction between the vegetables. Already soggy by the time it hit the table, in hindsight, it might have been wise to request dressing on the side.
Picking up the slack for that underwhelming salad, an appetizer plate of Combination Rolls brought together a wide variety of savory samples, each one wrapped up in its own discrete nori or rice paper package. Trios of buckwheat noodle rolls, seaweed rolls, mushroom rolls and kimchi vermicelli rolls artfully adorned the plate, ideal for sharing with an equally hungry date. Easily eating more than my fair share of both the mushroom and buckwheat assortments, they both shared an unexpected depth and richness, enhanced by a lightly battered and fried exterior.
Silky Tofu in Clay Pot brings the heat, arriving in a bubbling hot broth and sizzling metal bowls we’re advised not to touch. Served with sticky white rice on the side to soak up every last drop of flavorful soup, this dish alone would have been enough for a solo diner’s lunch. So soft it practically melts in your mouth the tofu is just as tender as promised. Stewing away in the boldly astringent, tangy, and spicy liquid, this pillowy bean curd is anything but bland.
Arriving with a plume of aromatic steam, each order of Kimchi Stone Bowl Rice comes with plenty of beans sprouts, shredded nori, and of course kimchi, with a bit of performance art on the side. After allowing us to admire the kitchen’s handy work on the carefully composed grains and vegetables, our waiter snapped to attention and began vigorously mixing, scraping, and stirring, until every last morsel in that bowl begged for mercy. Dramatics aside, it’s easy to see why this signature dish has taken off with such ease. Well balanced, as I had come to expect from Hangawi‘s offerings, the crispy rice is truly the best part. Perfectly crunchy in a way that standard skillets can only dream of achieving, it’s the sort of dish that I could never fully replicate at home. There’s such finesse that goes into the technique, transforming plain white rice into something extraordinary, which demonstrates the mastery of the chefs here.
The spice level in the funky, fermented Kimchi isn’t hot enough bowl you over, but the burn certainly grows with each successive bite. Crazy though it may sound, the thin sheets of delicately rolled cabbage struck me as ideal palate cleansers between bites of so many wildly different dishes.
Unrivaled even in this city of unparalleled choice, there is no better place to experience a wholly plant-based Korean meal. Fine dining does come at a price, but lunch specials are much more budget-friendly, and I’ve heard that Hangawi‘s sister restaurant, Franchia, also serves similar dishes in a more casual, low-key setting. Clearly, my adventures into Korean cuisine are far from over… I can see a trip out to this second outpost in my near future, purely for the sake of research, of course.
Liz’ note: Hannah Kaminsky is a long time committed vegan, author of three cookbooks and blogger at Bittersweetblogspot.com. Her fourth book, Easy as Vegan Pie: One of a Kind Sweet and Savory Slices is due out in Fall 2013. Watch for info and review here.
If this summer’s heat has you hankering to whip up non-dairy frozen treats check out my review of Vegan A La Mode here.
All photos here are by Hannah Kaminsky.