Watermelon namul, dusted with chile, cold and juicy and crisp? Luscious purple eggplant, charred on the grill, slicked with spicy-sweet gochujang? Lemon cucumbers tossed with fresh ginger and white nectarines? Cool, crunchy slivers of Korean pear tossed with slivers of fresh shiso leaves? Sure.
Banchan, the parade of small courses accompanying a Korean meal, often is ignored by dudes intent on plowing through all-you-can-eat Korean barbecue, but it may be the latest frontier in Los Angeles cooking: highly flavored, exquisitely seasonal, infinitely varied, capable of accommodating any number of farmers market vegetables but spicy, fresh and almost without weight. It may be worth going to Moko, Gary Robins' new restaurant in Culver City, for the banchan alone — even if the basic cabbage kimchee is just OK. There are braised artichokes with pea shoots to contend with.
When we last left Gary Robins, he was tending to a pop-up restaurant in a Studio City trattoria. And while we liked the food well enough — it was a pretty straightforward Italian menu, with an emphasis on the raw-fish dishes called crudo — we were a bit puzzled. Robins had probably been the first important Asian-fusion chef in Manhattan, at restaurants like Aja and Match Uptown, where his mango sundaes and grilled mackerel with edamame had been a favorite of Ruth Reichl when she was the critic at The New York Times, and he was solid as the chef at the Biltmore Room and even the Russian Tea Room, where he served a short term, but he had never been known for his Italian food.
Robins was famous for his mastery of the pan-Asian palate, teasing umami and spiciness into places where they'd never been before, deft with seafood, and polished enough to command the intricacies of a three-star New York kitchen, which put him near the top of the profession. He never stayed in one restaurant for very long — I never quite managed to review him — but his fans, who remained constant even when worthy rivals like Anita Lo and the guys at Cendrillon stepped into the ring, followed him all over town.
But now there's what seems like a real Robins restaurant in Los Angeles: Moko, a sprawling new restaurant in the space recently occupied by the Korean barbecue parlor Gyenari, on a chain-clogged stretch in Culver City's downtown. With the closing of Beacon, and the impossible waits at Lukshon, Moko is a restaurant Culver City needs.
Where Gyenari was date-night Korean, a place to go when sticky-table joints like Hamji Park or Olympic Cheonggukjang may have been too intense, Robins is riding more of a neo-Korean groove at Moko. He's inspired by but not particularly faithful to Korean flavors and structures — sourcing meat and seafood from suppliers more likely to have worked with Border Grill and Campanile than with DGM and Soot Bull Jeep — but throttling down a bit on the wild, funky, fermented aromas that often characterize Korean food.
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If you get a raw dish, like hamachi with yuzu and sliced jalapenos or salmon with black garlic paste, you're not going to get the turbocharged pungencies that you'd find at a place like Masan. If you get a grilled galbi skewer, it won't have the full-on sizzle and caramelization you expect from great Korean barbecue (plus — truffle oil?) and the grilled skewers of pork belly and scallops are too careful — not overcooked exactly, but without the delirious marriage of melted fat and spurting seafood juices that you may have been expecting when you ordered the dish. Robins is not of the meaty-meat school of Animal or Lazy Ox.
But the sauteed mandu — dumplings — filled with pan-fried duck and slabs of foie gras can be kind of great, oozy and rich in all the right ways, and you'll probably want an order of the supple kimchee mandu for the table. Nobody in Los Angeles quite has the proper take on David Chang's famous buns from Momofuku in New York (Flying Pig tries hard), but Robins' are really good: pale, slippery saucers of fluffy steamed dough folded over chile-tinged sausage patties with pineapple and a sweetish sauce, or braised pork with watercress and Korean pear. (Moko pushes the ssam at happy hour, which sounds just about right.) And who wouldn't want their kimchee jeon pancake, inflected with pork belly and smoky bacon, plum sauce and chile? It's the kind of excess we believe in.
You probably will be disappointed with Moko's signature dessert, a tame version of the street-food pancakes called hotteok, which are always better purchased mouth-searingly hot, for a buck, from a street cart in K-town. Instead, before they wise up and take them off the dessert menu, I suggest ordering s'mores and toasting them in the flames of the otherwise unused tabletop barbecue, creating lava flows and explosions of goo that will require jackhammers to clean up. Jackhammers that will not be operated by you.
MOKO | 9540 Culver Blvd., Culver City | (310) 838-3131 | MokoSocial.com | Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Thurs., 5 p.m.-mid.; Fri.-Sat., 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Valet parking, nearby city garages | Banchan, three for $9; ssam, $6-$7; plates, $9-$17 | Recommended dishes: watermelon namul; purple eggplant namul; pan-fried duck and foie gras mandu; kimchee jeon; pig's-foot torchon (jokbal); grilled octopus