This Eclectic Korean Tasting Menu Has Changed the Game Entirely
There’s no silverware on the table when the tostada arrives, and some guests at Dandi are confused about how to attack it without a knife and fork. It’s an amusing moment in Los Angeles, where people frequently eat Mexican food with their hands at trucks and restaurants all over the city. But the bafflement at Dandi is understandable.
The tostada is part of a tasting menu. Also, it doesn’t look like any other tostada you’ve ever encountered. What you see is lots of melty provolone topped with delicate but pungent garlic flowers. What’s underneath the veil of white cheese is also surprising. There’s beef tongue that’s been marinated in soy sauce, Asian pear, rice syrup, garlic, ginger, and onion for 24 hours before being cooked sous vide with cinnamon and jujube. There’s also some kimchi made with Thai shallots supplied by farmer Kong Thao.
The tostada is a tour de force that deftly combines crunch, tenderness, meatiness, and funk. It’s a dish that’s inspired by Seoul-born chef Jihee Kim’s heritage, and the marinade she uses for the tongue is the same one that she’s used for galbi jjim (braised short ribs). It’s also a dish that grew out of L.A.-born chef Joshua Pressman’s childhood love of tostadas, which he ate often at El Mar Azul, a truck that’s still around in Highland Park.
But the tostada really started with a simple idea: Pressman thought it would be nice for Dandi, a modern Korean pop-up restaurant that’s now serving weekend dinners at Koreatown’s Hotel Normandie, to try out a tongue dish.
It’s a good example of how the creative process often works at Dandi. Pressman throws out an idea, and the chefs work together to figure out if the idea actually makes any sense.
“He has a lot of ideas,” Kim says and laughs.
These ideas sometimes give her pause because she wants to be respectful of Korean food and “preserve the integrity” of certain dishes. But she also knows what’s ultimately most important. “We both agree that if it tastes good when we try it, nothing else matters,” she says.
At first, they thought they would serve tongue in a more composed dish. One option was grilling tongue over charcoal and offering “a plated tongue steak sort of dish,” Pressman says.
“We focused too much at the time on nice plating,” Kim says. “Like, we did something that was sort of like sushi, with an egg yolk.” Then they realized there was no need to be so fancy.
“We started to realize that this is a marriage of my upbringing and your upbringing,” Pressman says as he looks at Kim. “That sort of inherently means that it’s got to be L.A. and it’s got to be South Korea.”
This moment of clarity, combined with Kim and Pressman’s memory of eating bulgogi topped with “a brûléed mess of mozzarella cheese” at a restaurant called Hamyangjip in Gyeongju when they visited South Korea together, resulted in the tostada.
L.A. is a place that appreciates the pure possibility of things that are not yet fully formed. So even though Kim and Pressman are still working to open a permanent restaurant, Dandi is already the talk of the town. Los Angeles Magazine has said that the tostada might be the dish that “embodies what it’s like to cook and eat in L.A. in 2019.” Just this week, Time Out Los Angeles ranked Dandi No. 2 in its list of the 12 best new restaurants in L.A., behind only Dave Beran’s high-profile Pasjoli.
This praise seems correct when you eat at Dandi and realize that Kim and Pressman are cooking spectacular food that’s unlike anything else in L.A. An opening salvo of snacks at a recent dinner includes jokbal (braised pig trotter) croquettes and corn “silken tofu” (which is made without soybeans) topped with a luxurious pile of Dungeness crab. A scallop crudo is the result of a visit to the farmers' market where Pressman found some chile manzano, a strikingly floral pepper that the chefs combine with passion fruit to make an aguachile. A mandu course features dumplings filled with silky shrimp mousseline. A barbecue course is wonderfully fatty pork collar, which is a reminder that deliciousness wins over daintiness in Los Angeles. And, yes, it’s worth getting your hands dirty as you devour the whole Korean fried quail. This tasting menu can be paired with natural wines that nicely complement the umami-rich dishes.
Kim and Pressman have been around the restaurant industry their whole lives. Kim’s parents still run Jungwon, a mom-and-pop restaurant on the outskirts of Busan, South Korea, that’s known for its soybean soup. Pressman’s parents met in the kitchen at Wolfgang Puck’s original Spago in L.A.. But both Kim and Pressman stress that they weren’t really working alongside their parents. Cooking for a living was something they decided on independently.
“A lot of Asian parents, they want you to go to school and do something else,” Kim says. “My parents are pretty OK about me cooking. They just say, ‘You’re going to be tired a lot. Your body will hurt.’”
Kim and Pressman met when they were line cooks at Rustic Canyon. Kim would make Korean food like japchae (stir-fried glass noodles) for family meal, and Pressman would tell her about eating Korean food in Los Angeles. Eventually, he told her that he would be by her side if she ever wanted to open her own Korean restaurant.
They both saw the kind of boundary-free, globally influenced food that Jeremy Fox was cooking at Rustic Canyon and realized that L.A. is a city where riffing on something can be better than recreating it. Pressman remembers Rustic Canyon’s version of a Tuscan tomato-bread stew (which is in Fox’s groundbreaking On Vegetables cookbook) with ramp kimchi.
“One of the most important things I learned from Jeremy is looking at things through a crazy distorted lens,” Pressman says. “He does it all the time. He’ll say, ‘It’s pappa al pomodoro.’ And you’re like, ‘No, it’s not.’ But it is, because all the flavors point in that direction. That’s an important sort of way to approach food when you’re trying to create your own cuisine, because otherwise you get stuck in this rut of just doing the same shit the same way.”
A lot of the fun and deliciousness at Dandi involves veering off into surprising directions.
“We try not to explain too much,” Kim says. “Just eat it and see if you like it.”
While L.A. is known for its wealth of Korean food, it still doesn’t have a restaurant like New York’s Atoboy (which Pressman and Kim visited on separate visits), Atomix, or Jungsik that’s catapulted Korean cooking into the fine-dining stratosphere. Pressman and Kim might end up filling that void. They hope to open a restaurant that will have both an a la carte menu and a small portion of seats where they will serve a tasting menu.
Maybe Dandi will end up doing for Korean food what Lasa has done for Filipino food and Kato has done for Taiwanese food. The potential is there. Pressman fondly remembers experiencing the early pop-up days of Lasa, when Chad and Chase Valencia were serving tasting menus at the Highland Cafe coffeeshop after starting out in their sister-in-law’s backyard. Pressman knows that L.A. now has other highly specific pop-ups, like Zen Ong’s Indonesian-focused Inda, which recently did a dinner with Jon Yao at Kato. Avant-garde Chengdu superstar Yu Bo, who’s about to cook at a series of pop-ups with L.A. underground legend Laurent Quenioux, recently dined at Dandi.
So this is a perfect moment for Pressman and Kim to make a tostada that’s beautifully Angeleno but also nods to the trend of chefs all over Korea melting cheese atop meat (something that’s very popular on social media, by the way).
“We hesitated a little bit because it’s a tostada and we were thinking too much about a fancy kind of dish,” Kim says. “When we bit into it, we were like, ‘Oh, it’s really good. Let’s just do it.’”