In the midst of the hectic preparations that go into a newly opened restaurant, Chef Esther Choi appears strikingly at ease.
Choi — who opened mŏkbar (212 Flatbush Avenue near Bergen Street) on February 8 — has created an ambitious, new Korean restaurant that mixes the comforts of home with a clean, urban-rustic space just a few blocks from Barclays Center.
The 60-seat food venue is her second venture after opening her successful Chelsea Market venue just three years ago.
“I always wanted a brick and mortar restaurant, and it was a blessing to start there [at Chelsea Market],” she says.
While her Manhattan space focuses on her ramen dishes, Choi’s goal with her Brooklyn venue is to expand the menu to include a range of Korean soul food.
The traditional Korean staple “jip bap” is well-represented at mŏkbar, including a braised short rib dish, marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, spices and Asian pear; Samchi Jorim, salted mackerel simmered in spicy soy sauce with daikon radish; and Kimchi Jaeyook, thinly-sliced spicy pork and caramelized kimchi.
Choi’s goal is to create a contemporary environment, “while the tastes remain authentic,” she says.
With that in mind, diners can also expect an array of “anju” — small plates that are “an integral component of the Korean drinking culture.”
Choi grew up in South Jersey, and explains that her background has given her “the perfect American palate,” allowing her to serve those well-versed in Korean cuisine as well as less familiar diners.
Choi’s parents are immigrants who were both working full-time jobs. “My grandparents raised me,” she explains, and they cooked traditional Korean meals at home. “They grew food from seeds that were shipped from Korea,” she says, “but at school, I would eat sandwiches like any other American kid.”
Choi describes herself as rather competitive. “I started out late in the game and had to be,” she says. “I took three jobs at once. I had to get my foot in the door. I was older than the other students and felt that I was behind.”
The chef is a quick study indeed, and the accolades began coming in after she opened her Chelsea Market space. Choi was just named one of the “40 Under 40 Rising Star Chefs” by FSR (Full Service Restaurant) Magazine. Look for her on the cover of the March 2017 issue.
Choi is looking forward to serving her house-made kim chi, as evidenced by the collection of “fermenting pots” which decorate the shelves of the attractive steel fixtures up front.
And she believes the menu — which includes “mandu,” a variety of handmade dumplings with garlic chive dipping sauce — has something for everyone. “I’m not afraid to use flavor,” she says. “I love using fish sauce and sesame oil. They create authentic tastes.”
And that’s where her ramen dishes come in, which she believes are a great way to introduce these flavors. “Ramen is so popular right now, and it’s the perfect way to ‘disguise’ Korean food,” Choi says with a smile.
Because Choi lives right across the street, she’s spending an immense amount of time fine-tuning what is already a robust start.
Our prediction: Flatbush Avenue will grow into a serious player in the Brooklyn culinary scene. You heard it from us. Now get down to mŏkbar and taste it for yourself.
Where: 212 Flatbush Avenue near Bergen Street. (Entrances on both Flatbush and Bergen)
Hours: Open for dinner daily from 5pm-11pm; Wine, beers, and spirits coming soon.