Esther Choi's Culinary Empire Takes Shape
It’s still too early to say for certain, but Esther Choi may just have a budding restaurant group in the making. The latest addition, Ms. Yoo, is not a departure from her first concept so much as a scenic detour. The New York–based chef (and FSR “Rising Star”) has made it her mission to integrate traditional Korean flavors into more Western palates—a plan she has successfully carried out through her first mokbar, which now has two locations.
Just as mokbar snuck ingredients like kimchi, bulgogi, and pickled daikon into the more familiar carrier of ramen, Ms. Yoo facilitates guests’ early forays into Korean cuisine through American pub fare. Instead of barbecue or buffalo sauce, the Korean Fried Chicken Wings employ either spicy gochujang or honey soy sesame sauce; the Tteok n’ Cheese subverts the classic mac ‘n’ cheese with a mix of rice cakes, gruyere and cheddar cheeses, bacon, and kimchi tomato sauce.
“The approach to the food concept is pretty much the opposite of what I’ve done before, which has been Korean food with some Western influences. At Ms. Yoo, it's Western food—specifically American—with some Korean accents,” Choi says. “It's a concept that is very timely, because Korean flavors and ingredients have finally become so popular. Kimchi has almost become mainstream.” To that point, Choi has added two types of kimchi to the menu as side dishes since the opening.
Another game changer for the Lower East Side gastropub is the cocktail program. It’s a small menu, but a carefully curated one with subtle Asian flourishes. Mist Whispers Like Woman blends vodka with Korean plum and wine, while I Ms. Yoo mixes bourbon, bitters, vermouth, and jujube.
Named for Choi’s grandmother, Ms. Yoo also breaks with mokbar in its outward dress. Whereas the original concept sported a modern motif with moody undertones and an assortment of Korean décor, Ms. Yoo is an airier space with ivy snaking around the bar and metal domes hanging overhead. Built-in shelves warmly lit with candles dominate the cozy upstairs, which serves as a private event space.
It’s been a busy year for Choi; in addition to Ms. Yoo, she also opened the second (and first standalone) mokbar in Brooklyn in January. But she doesn't have plans to slow down anytime soon. Already the chef is working to start a brunch program and add more burgers to the menu, following the runaway success of the signature Ms. Yoo Burger.