When River Barrel, located at 160 Franklin Street, lost its second chef at the beginning of the year, Lisa Kim, the restaurant’s owner (along with her husband Yeong Kim), started serving Korean dishes from her personal repertoire as specials.
Now, the couple—longtime Greenpointers themselves—are making her specialties the main event. The restaurant has new chefs, a new, Korean-inspired menu, and a new name: Mrs. Kim’s.
The Kims opened River Barrel in January 2009. In early February of this year, they brought over Jonathan Meyer, 25 and Will Griffin, 25, from the recently closed Greenpoint Coffeehouse just down the street to be their new Co-Head Chefs (some wait staff and line cooks also came along). They had asked Meyer and Griffin to re-vamp their current menu, which had a somewhat unfocused and eclectic fare, and to create a more traditional, American-European menu. The chefs protested, and so did the rest of the River Barrel staff—they wanted more Korean food, and they had the feeling that the neighborhood did too.
“We talked to them and got really excited about doing Korean food,” Meyer said. “I’ve lived in this neighborhood for a long time, and there’s not a lot of places to eat. I sense that it’s about to change, but there’s nothing remotely like [Mrs. Kim’s] around here, or really even in Williamsburg. There aren’t a lot of restaurants in Greenpoint, but there’s a lot of potential. And this seemed like a great niche for us.”
“I was excited about doing sort of what the Chef at the Fatty Crab did, which was to take Malaysian food and eat it and think about how to make it really good,” continued Meyer, who worked at the Fatty Crab in the past. “In our case, we have this great situation where we would sit down for lunches and Mrs. Kim would make us food and Mr. Kim would explain it to us. It’s great because all Korean food has purpose—there’s a soup for when you’re just given birth, and a kimchi stew that you make with your old kimchi and you eat when you’re stick or hungover, which we put it on our brunch menu as hangover stew.”
Over the period of a few weeks, Mr. and Mrs. Kim prepared dishes for Meyer and Griffin, and they worked to create a new menu inspired by traditional Korean dishes—bibimbop, fried chicken, doejang ribs, hangover stew—but not tethered to their predecessors.
“Mrs. Kim gives us a lot of feedback—there’s little tricks she has for a lot of stuff,” Meyer said. “We worked together on the pork buns—she’s got a great palate and lot of helpful suggestions to make, and so does her husband. The menu is really a dialogue between us and them.”
The new menu is a far more focused one that highlights Korean dishes but experiments with more complex cooking techniques and incorporates other flavors and influences. One starter, Radishes + Kimchi Butter, features Mrs. Kim’s Napa cabbage kimchi folded into butter and spread on a baguette with daikon kimchi, radish greens, and Spanish white anchovies cured in white vinegar and olive oil. While the bibimbop, a rice and vegetable staple dish, is getting a twist in the form of a 45-minute slow-poached egg and unique seasonal vegetables like asparagus and snow peas.
“We’re not trying to just do traditional Korean food. We’re trying to play up the Korean angle as much as we can and learn as much as we can, and have our traditional dishes be representative versions,” Meyer explained. “But we also like to take liberties—even though Korean people don’t use a lot of herbs, I personally do—so I have no problem using Thai basil or Vietnamese mint, and I think the Kim’s like it too. That said, we’re not trying to make it indiscriminately Pan Asian.”
Brunch lovers have no need to worry: in addition to pork buns, Korean hot dogs, and kimchi platters, the brunch menu still has the classics from Greenpoint Coffeehouse like eggs benedict and french toast, and a hamburger—not to mention a killer bloody mary. And, like at the Coffeehouse, Meyer and Griffin continue to work with local farmers, some of whom have offered to start planting more Asian and Korean produce especially for the restaurant.
Aside from kitchen duties, Meyer and Griffin have taken on some front of the house duties as well, from managing the floor to sprucing up the beer, wine, and cocktail lists, changing the outside awnings, and adding some foliage to the décor.
“I’m pretty sure that people are into it,” Meyer said. “We’re doing something that I think you can’t get anywhere else nearby, and I’m happy to be making a contribution to the neighborhood.”
“It was kind of rough for a second,” he continued. “The Coffeehouse closing was really sad and really draining, and we were working at both restaurants. Now, we’re in a pretty good spot. I really like working for the Kims, and we want to make them really successful. This place has so much potential and, unlike The Coffeehouse, it doesn’t have an end date.”