Chef Dave Park and partner Jennifer Tran said they feel very fortunate to have found a West Town space to house their new contemporary Korean restaurant. Jeong opens on Friday, and Tran said it’s the opposite of “cookie cutter.” The space is elegant with art imported from Korea by one of Hanbun’s most fondest customers — a definite change from the small suburban stall at the International Mall in Westmont. Park, an Eater Young Gun, will mix traditional Korean flavors and give them a modern presentation influenced by Western restaurants.
“Typically Korean food tends to be a little bit brash and very upfront, it might not be the prettiest little thing, but as David Chang says it’s ‘#UglyDelicious,’” Park said. “I think we’re going to change that a bit because I’m not cooking traditional Korean food.”
Jeong replaces Green Zebra, 1460 W. Chicago Avenue, and some of the restaurant’s investors are also behind Oriole and Kumiko in the West Loop. One of the investors, John Bruce, lives in Western Springs, which is near Hanbun and was a big fan of Park and Tran’s first restaurant. The pair resisted keeping the Hanbun name because they wanted a fresh start. While loyal fans like Bruce inspire the team, they didn’t want to confuse old customers thinking they’d serve the affordable lunch options they did at the old restaurant.
Jeong will concentrate on dinner with a la carte items and a seven-course tasting menu. They are bringing two workers from Hanbun with them to the city, so there’s continuity. But there’s so much glorious space in West Town.
“We’ll be able to do so much more,” Tran said. “Pretty much our whole entire upstairs — the kitchen and where the register was — is the size of the dish pit over here.”
A la carte items include yukhe (beef tartare, Asian pear, cucumber, deviled egg yolk, buckwheat and perilla cracker). There’s also a sashimi that’s a tribute to Park’s childhood trips to Korean fish markets, substituting the traditional fluke for mackerel. There’s a pork and kimchi mandu and also a tteokbokki (schmaltz, pickled mustard, quail egg, charred cabbage, spicy chili sauce).
The tasting menu includes silken tofu (king crab, maesil, chili braised fern), Park’s favorite yulmoo rice (duck, corn tea, soy glaze, scallion), and a beef dish with kimchi truffle emulsion and sunchoke croquette.
Park, a Korean native who grew up in America, didn’t know how customers would react to Hanbun when it opened in 2015. He said he was giving away food to try to see what diners liked. Now he feels he’s evolved feeling more confident in his skills.
“We want to make sure that we put on dishes and ideas and flavors that people gravitate toward to but still make it our own so we have fun with it,” Park said.
Park’s also tacking the responsibility of creating the global wine list, as well as curating the sake and cocktail selections. He’s taking a novel approach with the drink list by pairing Korean flavors with spirits. For example, roasted barley is combined with rum. Jujube (red date) goes with rye. They’re plays on classic drinks. He’ll also offer pairings. For example, the kalbi would pair with a Northern Rhone Syrah.
Tran says Park is cooking what he wants, allowing his creativity to lead him. Park is having fun with the project. One of his desserts is made from Hi-Chew, the fruity Japanese candy. But at the same time, there’s a duty to respect tradition for Park, and he can’t wait to open his doors on Friday to show Chicago how his food’s evolved since Hanbun.
“I’m trying to keep the soul intact of Korean food,” Park said.