The Return of Baroo, LA’s Seminal Modern Korean Restaurant
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The Return of Baroo, LA’s Seminal Modern Korean Restaurant

Sep 02, 2023

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The journey of one of LA’s most celebrated restaurants has reached a milestone: Baroo, from chef Kwang Uh and wife and partner Mina Park, opens with a full tasting menu next Tuesday, September 5 in the Arts District. Though Baroo’s original East Hollywood space was spartan, the food transcended description. Uh’s experience in global kitchens and upbringing in South Korea helped inform a detailed, fermentation-oriented menu worthy of a Michelin-star but was priced like a fast-casual, neighborhood spot. The accolades came, but the space eventually closed in 2018.

After the closing, Uh and Park married, had a son, and opened homestyle restaurant Shiku at Grand Central Market in 2021. The intention has always been to bring Baroo back, replete with wine pairings, a lovely ambiance, and full service. That dream comes to life next week after years of preparation, a beautiful story that’s well-told on Park’s Substack.

The return of Baroo marks a key moment in LA’s Korean food scene, where the likes of Kinn, Yangban Society, and Perilla offer thoughtful, chef-oriented dishes in a city filled with vast options for traditional Korean food. Uh put together classic Korean ideas and flavors into a Noma-esque menu, and his time spent at Jeong Kwan seunim’s Buddhist temple cuisine has resulted in a five-course tour inspired by traditional Korean philosophies of yin and yang and the five elements of water, fire, wood, earth, and metal.

When asked what changed in his perspective from scrappy strip mall spot to a grown-up tasting menu restaurant, Uh says that starting a family shifted priorities. “After having a baby, I changed from having a singular focus to putting more importance on finances and security. After closing Baroo, it was a hibernation time, but my eyes also awakened to other things,” says Uh. With a complete dining experience, Uh and Park could envision something meaningful not only for their family but also for the city of Los Angeles.

With the city in mind, Uh and Park worked on making their menu financially approachable. Noticing that many restaurants, even very casual ones, could reach a cost of $100 per person, they felt it was a compromise to price their menu at $110, perhaps high for a neighborhood spot but on the lower side for a tasting menu. “That was our principle, to find a second-generation space with no key money, because our budget was almost nothing,” says Park.

Applying the Korean philosophical principles that inspired Taoism and Confucianism, Uh’s menu is a passage through the phases of life, from the time before birth, to youth, through later years, and eventual rebirth. Uh and Park aren’t trying to be didactic or preachy here. They want people to ultimately enjoy themselves and walk away nourished with a sense that the food was thoughtful. Given the pretension that often occupies fine dining, Uh and Park’s inspiration feels rooted, authentic, and genuine.

The food starts with tae, a period well before birth, with corn puree, apple, and celery with a bite of red yeast makgeolli, nduja, and pichuberry. Next, the yang dish reflects the time when one is waiting to be born, a seared Hokkaido scallop with minari and rice puffs. Saeng, a time when birth actually begins, is coursed as fried gaejang-marinated softshell crab, inferring a kind of coming into the world, served with maesil (sweet plum extract) and seabuckthorn presented as a ssam. Dae reflects youth, before maturity, as soy-braised wild black cod, dongchimi (pickling liquid), lemongrass, buttermilk, coconut, and green papaya. Wang, literally meaning “king” but signaling a zenith of maturity, acts as the main course of either Peads and Barnett pork collar with gollash jjigae, baek (white, as in no chile) kimchi, or Brandt beef short rib with burdock jus. Byung, which means “illness” but recalls a time when one’s health declines and when one would receive care and attention, is served as a rice course, with wild mountain greens, ramp jangajji (pickle), XO sauce, and gamtae bugak (refined lacey seaweed that’s fried with a light breading). Dessert, the rebirth, is expressed as chamoe (Korean melon) panna cotta with toasted grain ice cream and sorrel bingsu (shaved ice).

The drinks are also a big focus at Baroo, served as a full wine pairing and even a Korean spirits (sul) menu featuring makgeoli (unfiltered rice wine), soju, and more. Jason Lee, previously of N/Soto, Pijja Palace, and Kali, created Korean-influenced cocktails like the omija, olive oil-washed maesil soju with omija (five berry tea) cordial and txakolina.

Park helped oversee the design, with input from Uh, creating a sleek, semi-industrial feel with warm wood seating and materials, antique Korean dduk (sweet rice cake) tools, and other artisan accents. OWIU, a design firm comprised of two longtime Baroo fans, helped to execute the vision within a tight budget. When possible, some things are sourced from LA, like the napkins and aprons by White Bark Workwear, while cutlery and plating were crafted by South Korean artisans.

Uh and Park hope to serve a vegan and vegetarian menu sometime in the future, once the standard tasting menu comes into shape. The counter that looks into the kitchen will eventually be a more progressive, omakase-style chef’s menu too, with dishes that reach into the avant-garde. Angeleno diners should be more excited than ever that one of its celebrated modern Korean restaurants has returned, with more verve, style, and substance than ever.

Until then, Baroo opens with reservations-only seating beginning at 5:30 p.m. up to 9 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, at 905 East 2nd Street, Unit 109, Los Angeles, California 90012. Book seats on Resy.

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