MaDang Courtyard is a new restaurants-and-cinema complex on Western in Koreatown. MaDang, which is the Korean word for courtyard, is a three-level mall, home to an upscale Korean BBQ restaurant, two casual dining options, a beer halle and a movie theater that plays Korean films with English subtitles and American blockbusters with Korean subtitles. Since it soft-opened on June 4th, MaDang has also leased out storefronts to a bakery and a wine bar.
MaDang is located where the Koreatown outpost of Woo Lae Oak once stood. A Korea-based, family-owned chain, Woo Lae Oak first expanded into the States by way of New York City, then to L.A.'s Koreatown and, finally, to Beverly Hills. Having already established itself in Korea, the restaurant was Koreatown's choice for elegant Korean BBQ cuisine — a status now largely taken over by ChoSun Galbee and Chil Bo Myun Ok. During the late 90s and into the early 2000s, Korean-Americans overlooked Woo Lae Oak's steep prices in favor of the traditional ingredients, the sleek interior design, and the connection to what was in vogue back in the homeland.
But five years ago, Koreatown's Woo Lae Oak shut it doors for the development of MaDang. Owner Young Sook Choi moved to New York City to begin a restaurant chain called Bann. Word on the Koreatown streets is that the original family behind the Woo Lae Oak restaurants did not want to continue expanding their restaurant empire, so Choi decided — or, more specifically, was legally forced — to start her own. Choi says that her Bann name, which is the Chinese character for the Korean word bap (meaning rice or meal), will be easier for the non-Korean consumer to remember.
The new Bann has the same, airy, sleek feel of the old Woo Lae Oak. The BBQ grills that suction the smoke and smell downward are a welcome product of the remodeling. And the menu, developed by executive chef Eli Martinez and chef de cuisine Frank Lee, a part of the Woo Lae Oak group for the past twenty and ten years respectively, is surprisingly distinct from that of its predecessor.
Although Choi told us over lunch that her food is traditional, the restaurant combines those traditional ingredients with modernized interpretations. The naeng myun (cold, buckwheat noodle dish) uses much softer noodles. And the pat bing soo (the shaved ice dessert) features all the likely suspects, like beans, fruit and ice cream, but shows off the traditional ingredients in an impressive plating.
People still get nostalgic for the old Woo Lae Oak. Complaints are loudest on the matters of the lack of banchan (small dishes) beyond the kimchi and of the poor restroom design, which is said to be too tight of quarters for the conservative, Korean taste. But the ample, free parking, the ambiance and the nicely executed dishes help keep the criticisms to a low grumble.
Bann Restaurant: 621 S. Western Ave., L.A., (213) 384-2244.