Paju | Seattle Times Critic’s Pick | ★★★ | Modern Korean | $$ | Lower Queen Anne | 11 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-829-8215; facebook.com/paju.seattle; Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.; no reservations
THE MOST NOTEWORTHY THING about the atmosphere at Seattle’s new Paju is the ambient haze. It gets busy on Friday and Saturday nights — and will be packed every night soon, if anything is right with the world — with tables all full and supplicants crowded into the front of the shoebox-shaped room. The small kitchen in the back gets going, with the owlish face of chef Chunghoon Jeong appearing occasionally in the pass-through; if you peek through the curtains by the bathroom, you’ll see him fearlessly flipping giant seafood pancakes, the perfect crispy exterior searing of which doubtlessly contributes to the dining room’s smoky air.
The interior of Paju is pretty plain, if you want to look at it that way, or maybe mercifully simple. The chairs and tables look possibly left over from the inexpensive sushi place that used to be here, and there’s wainscoting and a utilitarian wooden banquette. The lighting’s nicer than it needs to be, with Edison bulbs encased in glass tubes dangling like good ideas waiting to land. A few shadow boxes inset into the walls hold volumes of the James Beard award-winning book, “Notes From A Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession,” which, along with the promising smell of the haze, are maybe the only clues that something out of the ordinary is going on here.
“The space is not necessarily ideal,” co-owner Bill Jeong acknowledges. (He and Chunghoon, who goes by Chung, aren’t related.) More ventilation would be nice. “We notice that smokiness…” he says. “But everything is under control! Don’t worry.”
Everything is more than under control at Paju. Bill and Chung have both been cooking for decades; Bill runs the front of the house, and while sometimes they switch roles, he stresses that Chung’s the chef, the one “getting stressed out about ‘Is this good enough, is this creative, is this the flavor profile he wants?’” Bill came to Seattle in ninth grade from South Korea — Paju is the name of his hometown there — and has San Francisco’s high-end The Fifth Floor and Saison on his resume. Chung has lived and worked in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. They met in the kitchen at Jungsik, hailed by the New York Times as the city’s “first high-end, thoroughly modern Korean restaurant” — one that now has two Michelin stars. Now, after Bill spent a year badgering Chung to move, they’re on a small-business-loan shoestring in their own space, making some of Seattle’s most interesting food. Like a mini-Jungsik, they’re looking at classics anew and crafting fusions that actually work, at definitely much more mini-prices.
Paju’s menu is meant to trick you. “We’re trying to keep half of it stuff that people recognize,” Bill says — dishes where “everyone knows what they’re getting into.” This is Korean comfort food, but even the sweet-chili chicken wings signal something special happening here. Ours were the prettiest — and the biggest — I’ve ever seen, plump and gorgeous, glistening a glossy orange-red. (Bill says they’re “party-sized.”) The sauce rang just-right sweet and also slightly spicy, with the batter’s puffy layer remaining crispy-crunchy underneath while we demolished all half dozen, which, granted, didn’t take long. Paju’s wings get brined for depth of flavor and lush meat-texture, and they’re double-fried to get that crust, which is carefully engineered with multiple kinds of starch, including sweet rice flour and xanthan gum, for the right consistency. The sauce stays old-school, with ginger, garlic, gochujang, ketchup and, in an excellent argument for its redemption, corn syrup (which “gives that shiny effect,” Bill says). Paju’s wings come with Wet-Naps, which you will need.
From there, even with the seemingly standard stuff, chef Chung can’t seem to help modernizing. Bulgogi, made with lovely bits of rib-eye and clearly high-quality rice, is augmented with crisped quinoa and takes the risk of truffle paté — the smell of the latter is overpowering, but through some sorcery of modification, the dish as a whole comes across cleaner and lighter than usual. That “Paju Crispy Pancake” is a Korean/Japanese mashup, laden with bouncy calamari, as one hopes with pajeon, but unexpectedly topped with an okonomiyaki treatment of ribbons of Kewpie mayo and tonkatsu sauce, crowned with bonito flakes waving in celebration.
The fried rice, deeply colored and flavored with squid ink and kimchi, bears a smoked quail egg, along with bacon in the form of a crumble, plus a dusting of almost-atomized seaweed. “We thought about it” — the notion of fried rice, Bill says — “and we were like, ‘This is boring. Let’s make it more interesting.’ ” Hence, nuance and balance, smokiness and stickiness, big and chewy grains coated in subtle spice. This is some damn good fried rice, served nice and hot, and in abundance — we just wished it had several more tiny yolks glowing on top.
The hope is that Paju’s patrons start with the things they’re more familiar with, Bill says — then, “If our flavor profiles win them over, for their second visit, they’ll try something else.” Don’t wait to come back for the endive salad: Each leaf is a little boat ferrying half a grape, bits of walnut and a vinaigrette that Chung smokes with Korean charcoal, so each bite is bitter, sweet and earthy, with the surprise hint of smoke (Paju loves smoke). All this goodness comes atop burrata that Chung makes, which the dish didn’t need. But, then, some stretchy creaminess under a very refined endive salad — why not?
Bill says mackerel is something every Korean kid grows up eating, but the fish you get at Korean restaurants here almost always comes frozen. Paju’s Spanish mackerel is fresh, and it’s braised in the style of the golden-sweet cubes of potato found among the side dishes at Korean barbecue until it’s super-soft, its silvery skin very tender. It rests atop a slab of juicy daikon, also braised in the same liquid — a traditional anchovy broth with ginger, mirin and more — but separately, for ideal timing and to prevent fishiness. The taste is like yammy candy. Under that is rice made intensely savory with wild seaweed, but possessed of a light herbiness, too. Small pieces of piercing persimmon pickle and tiny leaves of wasabi cress act as punctuation, plus daubs of burnt eggplant puree for smoke (there must be smoke). This is food exactingly conceived, beautifully composed and dizzyingly delicious.
“We go to Korean restaurants here in Seattle,” Bill says, “and I feel like, even though they’re doing their best, they’re not trying to utilize the best produce and product they can get their hands on. That’s where we’re a little different.” That, plus Chung’s obvious command of technique and clearly intense experimentation — his creativity combined with discipline.
Not everything works. Tartare made with Korean pear borders on dessert-level sweetness, the taste of luxurious cubes of beef getting lost. The asparagus encased in crunchy black-sesame-laden panko is out of season, and some spears get mushy. But only a dish of delicate seasonal mushrooms, overwhelmed with white kimchi and truffle aioli, went off the rails for me. Paju’s menu is mercifully brief — just a dozen dishes — and the value is tremendous: generous portions for sharing, everything under $20. You and a friend could and should eat your way through it all in three visits, because even Chung’s oddities are better than most other places’ best work.
Seattle needs more restaurants like Paju: more fascinating risks taken, more luring to explore. The spirit of adventure here and the height of the quality, at these prices, feels like a throwback to when the city was rife with DIY possibility. Bill and Chung got a great deal on the lease due to a short sale. “I think we can make this happen,” they thought. It’s happening. Eat it all!
Paju: 11 Mercer St., Seattle; 206-829-8215; facebook.com/paju.seattle; Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m., Friday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.
Highly recommended for Chunghoon Jeong’s creative, crazily affordable modern Korean menu that starts with exceptionally good renditions of favorites like chicken wings and fried rice, then goes to the likes of a Korean/Japanese pancake, a delicate endive salad and what might be the world’s best Spanish mackerel dish… you should really just try everything.
Prices: $$ (shareable plates $13-$19)
Noise level: A pleasant soundtrack of old soul or soft electronica plays at a volume that still allows for easy conversation.
Service is usually headed up by co-owner Bill Jeong, who loves to talk about the food as much as time allows; our dinners were well-paced and absolutely pleasant.
Drinks: Beer ($4-$6), short list of wines by the glass ($8-$15), makgeolli ($12/750 ml)
Access: no obstacles, one gender-neutral restroom