top 100: danji

danji

I’m one of those strange people who hates chicken wings. I’ve never quite grasped the attraction of eating with my hands and getting all messy for the sake of a few strands of meat and a mouthful of fatty, slippery poultry skin. Until the sticky, spicy, chili-flecked ‘k.f.c’ (Korean fire chicken) wings at Danji made a carnivorous convert of me, that is. Artfully piled five to a plate these honey-glazed wings are meaty and succulent, encased in a firm sheath of crispy skin. In place of the pure heat that too often overwhelms what could be a tasty tidbit, there’s a pleasantly lip-smacking piquancy that is divine – especially when paired with a cool glass of makgeolli, an unfiltered Korean rice beer that’s slightly sweet, like nigori, with just a hint of fizz. My only issue at this casually elegant version of a Korean tapas bar is that the plates are made for sharing. How do two people split five chicken wings? At one point I feared a stand-off, like a couple of dogs staking their claim. Good thing a silky bowl of wild mushroom jook and truffle oil arrived to distract us, followed by a plate of panko-dusted tofu with ginger scallion dressing hot on its heels. Dinner shifted into a new, less abrasive terrain. Like a palate cleanser, we had moved into the velvet course. I became doubly impressed once I realized how the kitchen had organized the arrival of our small plates. We had ordered everything at once and in no particular order. The chef had cleverly grouped our random selections into a composed menu of flavors and textures. Vermicelli noodles with beef and Korean pepper came next, alongside the most curious dish of the evening, spicy bulgogi beef rice cakes. I couldn’t discern the dish at first: it looked like gnocchi and kimchi with a fried wonton on top. Once the server explained that yes, we were close – the gnocchi was in fact a chewy rice cake; the wonton a vegetable dumpling designed to add some crunch – the dish made perfect sense: beef was an accompaniment, not the main attraction, as this was our rice course. It was also the course where we realized we were full. Poached sablefish with spicy daikon arrived to a palpable groan but we gobbled it up nonetheless. The buttery flesh was cut with the tang of a soy reduction, making for a star protein. Small plates can be deceiving, even more so at Danji, where anyone with a taste for a multiplicity of flavors will be easily seduced by the menu of a dozen and a half options. My sage advice: pace yourself; there’ll be plenty of time for bossam and spicy pork belly sliders tomorrow.

kfc chicken wings

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danji

Small plates that’ll have you thinking “Korean tapas” are the highlight at Danji, the friendly and unassuming restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen that’s mixing authentic flavors with French technique in a space that feels strangely similar to the inside of a Scandinavian sauna. If you’re early enough to beat the pre-theater rush, sidle up to the blond wood bar and take advantage of the flood of natural light over a plate of melt in your mouth panko-crusted tofu with ginger and scallion. The rear of the room is not nearly as spacious but at least it’s dimly lit, which is to your advantage when the sticky, savory, finger lickin’ good Korean fried chicken arrives. (It’s cleverly listed on the menu as KFC.) Filet mignon bulgogi sliders topped with pickled cucumber on a brioche bun are easily the best mini-sandwich in town; depending on your point of view, two on a plate is either a blessing or just downright cruel. I subscribe to the latter and heartily advise you to do yourself a favor: order seconds while you can. Once word gets out there’ll be Shake Shack-style queues snaking down 52nd Street.

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