Walking down 1st Avenue in New York City’s East Village, there is no shortage of places to eat. And if it weren’t for a bright red neon sign with the name “Oiji” on it, I might have walked right past my destination for dinner. Oiji is a small, high-end Korean restaurant serving up one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in the city in a long time (and I eat out a lot).
The staff was one of the best parts of the whole experience. Not only were they incredibly attentive (without being annoying) and friendly, but they were also a lot of fun and super knowledgeable.
We started off the night with cocktails. Despite being Worth’s wine and spirits columnist, I rarely finish a cocktail when I go out to eat. I drank the Shiso Fancy in its entirety and almost ordered a second one—that’s how good it is. What’s funny is I wasn’t sure how much I would like it, but it was surprisingly smooth and sweeter than I would’ve expected. It was so refreshing, too, with notes of lime and grapefruit without the intense, puckery tang.
One thing you should understand about Oiji is that the dishes are made to be shared. Many of the dishes were small bites with the intention that you would order a few, like Korean tapas. So first up was the foie gras. The foie gras itself was nice, a little gamey, as you might expect, but nicely offset by the oniony note of the chives atop it. But what really stole the show for me was the crunchy, delicious rice cracker the foie gras was situated on. The cracker itself was so perfectly crisp and almost had a flavor like a mild salt and vinegar potato chip. They were addictive, and I felt very jealous of a table near us that had a container of these crackers.
Now the second dish is what we came for—the wagyu samhap. This is a new dish featured as a special. Traditional samhap (meaning “three tastes”) features a plate of steamed pork, kimchi and hongeo, or fermented skate. This version plays on this with the wagyu, accompanied by uni and a white cabbage kimchi. This dish is a lot of fun, as it involves some semblance of play. The wagyu is brought to the table and torched in front of you. Then, an egg yolk is placed overtop, as is lemon soy sauce. You’re then tasked with mixing everything together, creating a creamy, citrusy, savory sauce over this meaty, sumptuous wagyu. A slice of wagyu paired with a little bit of the uni and a little bit of the kimchi makes for a complete bite—salty, briny, crunchy, citrusy. Absolutely worth a try.
It was at this point the chef sent out two dishes: scallops hwe and fried cauliflower. The scallop dish was beautiful. As hwe would imply, this was sort of a play on sashimi. On top were slices of scallop, while underneath was snow crab and jellyfish seated in a pool of green broth that had notes of refreshing cucumber and nutty sesame. This dish overall was very light and a great palate cleanser. The fried cauliflower was a great juxtaposition to this. And let me just say, I am not a fan of cauliflower. I intentionally didn’t order this dish, opting instead for the fried chicken, which we’ll talk about next. But the chef saw that I had made a mistake and sent this out anyway. He was absolutely right. This fried cauliflower was one of the best things I’ve eaten this summer. The way it was served, the cauliflower almost looked like high-end tater tots atop a spoonful of Greek yogurt with some sliced green grapes nestled in beside them. These fried cauliflower bites were so tasty and tender, with a little back-of-the-throat heat that creeps up later, but then the Greek yogurt is nice and cooling and the grapes help aid in that effort. Whether you do or don’t like cauliflower, these are a must-try.
For our main event, we had the tiger shrimp and the fried chicken. Like everything, I had at Oiji, the tiger shrimp was delicious. The batter around the hearty pieces of shrimp was crispy and slightly spicy. The broth that the shrimps were served in was thick and rich and paired well with the crustaceans. But I was really there for the fried chicken on this round. The chicken was coated in this light, crunchy batter that reminded me of a rice batter. And the chicken was served on top of a bed of lettuce and a little moat of soy sauce, which was the perfect complement to uplift the fried chicken.
To finish out our night, we indulged in honey chips and vanilla ice cream. It seems simple, and maybe it is, but wow, this was a dessert unlike any other I’ve had in a restaurant before. The honey chips reminded me of Lays potato chips—crispy, thin, salty—but covered in a sweet, sticky, caramel-y glaze. And even better, the chips were served warm! The salty and the sweet truly hit the spot, but then pair the warm chips with cold, fragrant, very flavorful vanilla bean ice cream, and it was pure dessert ecstasy.
When I think about what makes Oiji special, it’s really all about this feeling of comfort that they achieve. Between the staff, the food itself and the décor, everything had a real feeling of coziness and comfort and familiarity. For being a high-end restaurant that serves high-end, high-quality food, nothing felt stuffy or too serious. It felt like a place you could easily come to after a long day of work to relax and enjoy yourself and be taken care of. As the world returns to some sense of normal, a place like Oiji feels meaningful because the experience they’re providing is exciting, while also comforting. And that is only one of the many reasons I can see myself going back to Oiji again and again.