LaOn Dining is a tapas restaurant located right next door to Don Dae Gam, the immensely popular, pork-intensive Korean BBQ restaurant. If you walk into one because you thought it was the other -- depending on where you were trying to get to, the presence or absence of the tabletop grills should tip you off -- you could just go through the swinging door that connects the two restaurants, and you'll get to the right place. The shared quarters are due to the fact that the two restaurants are helmed by chef Jenee Kim, who also captains the beef-focused Park's BBQ a few blocks away on Vermont. All three restaurants offer Korean BBQ, but where Don Dae Gam and Park's essentially are the same plot with a different cast, LaOn's menu reads like a new story altogether.
The setting of this plot takes place in a distinctly modern space that feels almost like a lounge; even the requisite ventilation fans above each table whisking away wisps of smoke from charcoal grills add a bit of industrial sleek rather than subtracting from its muted ambiance.
Dry hand towels, compressed and rolled up tight into fat cylinders, are first presented upright in a dish; the server appears and adds water precisely on top of the towels like crème anglaise poured carefully into the center of a souffle. Somehow, this process is slightly more elegant than the same ritual at other Koreatown restaurants, maybe owing to the fact that the water is poured from a handsome kettle that otherwise belongs in a coffee shop, next to a Hario V60. In any case, the hydrating towel bit throws you back to the first time you tossed a "magic towel" into a bowl of water and watched it expand from brightly colored blob to Hello Kelly face cloth, and the show is just as amusing now as it was then. Which is exactly the point.
"LaOn," the restaurant's website helpfully informs us, means "the emotion of great delight or happiness" or "exceptionally satisfying." To achieve that state of happiness or satisfaction, you can choose plates off the Hwa Ro side of the menu, at which time a charcoal grill will be brought out on your order and you can grill away. If that's only what you order, you probably will leave delighted and satisfied; really, though, the meat of this restaurant isn't the BBQ. It's the Yori dishes, rather, that will live up to the restaurant's name and greatly delight and exceptionally satisfy.
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Served tapas-style, the recipes are taken from the great Chosun dynasty, but the resulting dishes have a lineage that is distinctly modern. The "Seven Wrap" is a take on the classic gujeolpan and comes out on a large plate with a small, neat stack of radish wrappers surrounded by even neater piles of shredded carrots, cucumber, beef, mushrooms and eggs. All of the above is to be layered in said wrappers and eaten like a delicate taco. The beef tartare comes out not unlike the hand towels: vertical, delightful. The bulgogi ssam is presented in soft bulbs of lettuce; the spicy octopus is served in a impeccably white bowl that only highlights the dish's shock of red. It's all exceptionally satisfying to see and eat, just as the restaurant promised.
The dénouement of the meal is not so much dessert -- though the mini hodduk, those sweet pancake served on carts all over Koreatown and served here as part of a trio of desserts, is a treat all on its own -- as it is a reflection on the theme. LaOn's distinguished interior, its imaginative re-creation of traditional Korean dishes and, ultimately, the price points all might suggest that this maybe is the Koreatown version of a white-cloth restaurant. But then you see the bottles of Hite on the tables and the whimsical tea selection ("Battery Charger" is a pineapple-papaya green tea; the "Head-in-a-Vice-Removal Potion" is the oolong), and you realize that this isn't fine dining so much as it is dining, refined. Koreatown needs more BBQ joints like it needs more crammed parking lots, and so LaOn is a welcome sequel to the never-ending BBQ story. A sequel that is just as good as the original. Drop curtain, end scene.
Check out Anne Fishbein's slideshow of LaOn.