You'd think that after opening nearly a dozen successful restaurants in the ultra-competitive Bay Area dining scene, restaurateur Hoyul Steven Choi would have calmed his new restaurant jitters by now. But Choi says that's not the case.
"I'm never confident," Choi said. "I always feel like [it's] a first date."
For Kitchen Story, Choi's restaurant in Rockridge that opened in January, the date seems to be going well so far. The service is attentive and efficient, and the restaurant is hip, airy, and charmingly decorated with wood-paneled walls, cozy booths, and an inviting bar. Most importantly, the menu is creative, satisfying, and well-executed.
Choi isn't just creating carbon copies of his restaurants, either. His original location of Kitchen Story in the Castro, which he opened along with Farmhouse Kitchen and Daughter Thai's owner, Kasem "Pop" Saengsawang, offers a Thai-inspired take on brunch, lunch, and dinner. But many of his other restaurants, including Berkeley Social Club, Sweet Maple, Surisan, and the Oakland location of Kitchen Story, draw from his Korean roots to varying degrees, with Surisan offering the most traditional dishes like mandu guk (dumpling soup) and bossam (pork belly wraps).
Kitchen Story in Oakland offers some traditional-ish Korean dishes alongside fusion ones (think gochujang hollandaise sauce atop a Korean fried chicken benedict), as well as some dishes that aren't Korean at all. But Kitchen Story, which is the only Korean (or Korean-inspired) restaurant in Rockridge, was never meant to be a straight-up Korean restaurant.
"I want to reach people who've never tried Korean [food] before," Choi explained. "Even in the Bay Area, you'll be surprised how many people [have] still never tried galbi, never tried kimchi...So this is kind of their door, [their] gateway."
Guests might be drawn in by the highly Instagrammable brunch dishes like the deep-fried mascarpone-stuffed French toast. Two thick slices of toast get sandwiched together with mascarpone in the middle, and the whole stack gets deep-fried, dusted with powdered sugar, topped with fresh fruit, and adorned with two long, crunchy antennae-like pieces. Despite its over-the-top appearance and description, the dish showed a surprising amount of restraint, being neither overly greasy nor overly sweet. The edges were crisp, with a yeasty airiness inside that reminded me of a donut. The modest amount of mascarpone in the middle added a hint of creaminess, but not a whole lot of flavor. It's definitely a must-order at brunch, but perhaps best shared so you can sample some of the savory brunch dishes.
The mango salad, available at both brunch and dinner, was a refreshing counterpoint to some of the heavier dishes on the menu. Using spring mix for a base, the salad combined beautifully browned shrimp, thinly sliced red onions, cherry tomatoes, cashews, fresh herbs, and long strips of juicy mangoes, all lightly coated in a slightly tart lime dressing.
With dishes like the Country Benedict, diners might start to catch on that Kitchen Story is a Korean-inspired restaurant, though it doesn't describe itself as such on the sign or menu. "They'll find out soon enough," Choi laughed. Atop slices of toasted ciabatta, the dish combined Korean fried chicken thighs with slices of tomato and gochujang hollandaise. The chicken had a flavorful, crisp crust and juicy interior, while the creamy, tangy hollandaise had just a hint of peppery sweetness from the gochujang. There was just enough of a twist to keep Korean food enthusiasts like me interested, while remaining in familiar enough territory for the meat 'n' potatoes crowd.
One of my favorite dishes, available all day, was the tornado omurice, a Japanese-Korean fusion dish with Choi's own twist. Omurice, or omelette rice, usually consists of a thin, delicate oblong egg omelet served atop a pile of fried rice with ketchup sauce on top. Choi's version is even more impressive, with a spiraling, vortex-like omelet served atop galbi rice with a spicy-sweet sriracha demi-glace. It takes practice to make tornado omurice — Choi recalled going through an entire case of 180 eggs while learning to make it.
Both the daytime and dinner menus feature one of Choi's signature ingredients across nearly all his restaurants: Millionaire's Bacon. Made from a center cut of pork belly and cut to what Choi estimates is three times the thickness of regular bacon, the slices get coated in brown sugar and cayenne pepper, then baked at a low temperature for two hours. The result is a candied pork belly with a texture almost like tender jerky, with a slight crispness around the edges.
At dinner, you can get Millionaire's Bacon served inside steamed baos with Vietnamese-style pickled carrots and cucumbers, cilantro, and a sprinkling of furikake on top. The warm, slightly sweet baos provided a nice canvas for the tender, slightly spicy bacon, though I wouldn't have minded more vegetables. At dinner, there's also an appetizer called the Millionaire's Way, which consists of two strips of bacon, honey butter, and two biscuits. If you think it sounds like it's hard to go wrong with those ingredients, you're right. I only wondered why the appetizer wasn't also listed on the daytime menu, since it seemed like a perfect fit for brunch.
There's nothing Korean about Millionaire's Bacon, Choi acknowledged, but it works surprisingly well in one of the most Korean dishes on the menu: jjapaguri, which is available all day. It's a combination of two Korean instant noodle brands, Jjapaghetti Ramen and Neoguri Udon, that anyone who's seen the Oscar-winning Parasite will recognize (translated in the English subtitles as "ram-don"). Choi's version of this dish subs out the luxurious sirloin for the equally luxurious Millionaire's Bacon, adding a fried egg on top along with cucumber and Japanese pickles.
And in case you're wondering, the dish does use the sauce packets that come with the noodles. "I'm actually shamelessly admitting it," Choi laughed. But to amp up the salty goodness of the instant noodles, Choi also adds nuggets of ground pork and slices of mushrooms for extra umami. There was a definite creeping heat as well as a slight sweetness, and the freshness of the cucumbers and pickles kept things light. It'll have you rethinking and appreciating the possibilities of instant noodles: simple, but with room for creativity, much like Kitchen Story itself.
"I'm not trying to create anything groundbreaking," Choi said. "I just want some solid food to offer to people."