In 2022, a table of customers at Perilla Korean American Fare began giving co-owner Thomas Oh a certain vibe. Oh ran a quick name check on the reservation — one of the guests at the table worked for Lotte Group, a large conglomerate that dominates South Korean business.
Chef Andrew Lim compares Lotte to Microsoft’s impact in the U.S. Lotte is a brand that his mother and family grew up knowing in South Korea. What was this person doing at Lim and Oh’s Korean American restaurant where the menu proudly skews from traditional Korean fare?
Oh made sure the table got some extra love and attention, and at the end of the night, he was presented with a business card. Lotte planned to open a hotel near the Mag Mile, taking over the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Chicago. The Seoul-based company needed a local food and beverage partner and several Koreans living in Chicago pushed them toward Lim and Oh as they bring their L7 brand to the States. The Kimpton property will transition to L7 at some point.
“My mom wanted to double-check their references,” jokes Lim, knowing what a big deal Lotte’s involvement would be in the view of many Koreans. Lotte is a multinational company known for candy, drinks, stores, manufacturing, theme parks, and more.
With that, Lim and Oh hatched plans to open another restaurant. In late spring or early summer, they’ll debut Perilla Korean American Steakhouse, a restaurant with a chef’s table experience and grill tables. Well-regarded design firm AvroKO is shaping the space which Oh and Lim describe as a restaurant for Korean business travelers and the local Korean community in need of a place for weddings and other private events.
Their original River West restaurant opened in 2019 (it replaced the new iteration of San Soo Gab San) and allowed Oh and Lim to showcase their unique take on Korean American cuisine. They push the boundaries of what to expect out of the genre, embracing Korean barbecue while giving Lim room to cook with a more modern approach. Those principles will remain intact at the new steakhouse.
One of the River West restaurant’s lynchpins was the meat program which offered customers cuts most wouldn’t expect from a Korean restaurant. While Oh, Lim, and co-owner Alvin Kang are all fans of the classic Chicago steakhouse, they admit the city is not lacking in the experiences Gene & Georgetti, Morton’s, and Gibsons provide. For Oh, beef is a gateway for folks who might be intimidated by Korean food. Having a restaurant in Downtown Chicago will encourage folks to explore, bolstering Perilla’s mission as Korean cultural ambassadors.
They won’t trot raw meat on a cart to show seated customers what they could order. The Perilla steakhouse will focus on wagyu — Japanese, Australian, and American. At the chef’s counter, they’ll emulate a Korean tasting-menu format, making diners feel like they have a personal chef at their beckon, showing off cuts of meat that are grilled behind the counter. Oh and Lim visited South Korea earlier this year to dial in their plans for the new restaurant. They’ll also dry age beef at the restaurant.
Even with the presence of a chef’s counter, Oh and Lim don’t want the place to feel overly formal. Oh makes a distinction between their plans and a fine dining restaurant which sometimes can make folks feel stuffy. Still, their standards remain high: “We want to make sure the service is on par with some of the best-performing steakhouses in Chicago,” Oh says.
It’s an all-day restaurant with breakfast and weekend brunch options. There aren’t too many restaurants that offer Korean-style breakfasts. Oh and Lim say there aren’t signature items — like eggs, bacon, or toast — that best show Korea’s morning options. The time of the day is marked more by the quantity of food on the table compared to the type of food, Oh says. Lim has memories of eating hot noodles for breakfast and suggests their menu may include a beautifully grilled whole fish.
Another concept the duo is toying with is a tribute to Korean church lunches with familiar items like japchae, LA kalbi, soups, and stews The after-service meal has become a tradition, one where churchgoers can catch up, dish gossip, and socialize.
Breaking barriers is something Oh and Lim have been concentrating on with a podcast and even hosting a James Beard Foundation party in 2023, turning Perilla into a celebration of Asian American culture, complete with karaoke. Even cookbook author and New York Times contributor J. Kenji López-Alt belted out a few tunes: “The steakhouse bridges the gap even closer,” says Oh.
There are two private dining rooms available for parties, but no concrete plans for a karaoke bar experience at the hotel. Perilla and Lotte will just have to wait and listen to what the market wants after they open. There’s also hope that Oh and Lim can host another party in 2024 at their new restaurant when the Beards return to Chicago in June.
Perilla Korean American Steakhouse, 225 N. Wabash Avenue, planned for a late spring or summer opening.