The new kid on the block in Culver City, MoKo, quietly slipped in to town in late April when it took over the former Gyenari space. The switch happened in a matter of about two weeks, when a truly modern Korean (get it?) restaurant replaced one that tried to be forward-thinking but ended up being stagnant. That’s why Gyenari owner William Shin made the change, along with partner Chris Heyman (Table 8, 8 Oz. Burger Bar) and Chef Gary Robins (formerly of The Biltmore, The Russian Tea Room and Aja in New York), who created a menu that’s contemporary without being overwrought.
We were recently invited to check out the new menu, which features updated versions of Korean ban chan, ssam, jeon and many other traditional Korean favorites. Don’t worry — the grills from Gyenari are still in place, so you can get your barbecue fix, too. And the cocktail list includes some nicely crafted drinks, too.
We started off with the MoKo Punch made with soju, vodka, persimmon cinnamon tea, and market watermelon and pineapple. We’re usually not big soju fans, but the inclusion of the traditional Korean persimmon cinnamon tea was a nice touch. The punch was sweet but not cloying, which is always a plus. The Rye Blossom, with Old Overholt rye, Grand Marnier and lavender bitters, was another favorite.
The menu is divided into sections based on type of food. Our favorite from the Dumplings category were the Green Onion Pork Wontons in Red Chili Sesame Broth, which had a clean pork flavor encased in a nicely delicate skin. From the Market Ban Chan menu, we enjoyed the Sweet Lotus, which was lotus root honey braised in sesame and soy, and the Purple Eggplant Namul with gochu jang (a fermented condiment), green onions and sesame. All the dishes we sampled from the Raw menu were excellent, so there’s no going wrong here. The Grilled Gabli Marinated Beef, with red chili pineapple ssam jang and truffle essence, off the Skewers menu was perfectly cooked and seasoned. Another favorite was the Zucchini and Golden Squash Cakes topped with grilled shrimp and sesame tomato chutney. It was served like a Korean-style flatbread – great for sharing.
While nearly everything we tasted satisfied, a couple of dishes fell short for us. The Gaeran-Jjim, a ginger-scented egg custard with shrimp, crab and a parmesan crisp, was tasty but way too rich and could do without the parmesan crisp. And the ssam, traditionally served as lettuce wraps, are served here in folded Chinese-style bao bread, many with some kind of aioli that makes the bread soggy.
But back to the good stuff — the dessert, which was fun to make and eat. Yes, you can make your own dessert in the form of fancy s’mores with house-made almond graham crackers, chili chocolate sauce, and strawberry, orange blossom-ginger and anise marshmallows. This is where the in-table barbecue came in handy. The lychee semifreddo and the watermelon granita are also solid choices.
MoKo is an exciting addition to Culver City. It’s definitely worth a trip.
Note: This was originally posted on LAist. This meal was hosted.