Review | Ms.Yoo

The highlight menu item at Ms. Yoo, the new Korean-American gastropub in the Lower East Side, is the whole chicken. The servers talk it up at every table, and it’s easy to see why: when our order emerged from the kitchen, there wasn’t an unturned head in the house.

The chicken, at first glance, looks like it could belong on any All-American dinner table come Thanksgiving or Christmas time: the skin is perfectly browned and crispy, and the flesh is succulent, juicy and tender – just like how Grandma used to make it. With one exception: Ms Yoo‘s chicken comes with the head, and feet, still very much attached. 

The attached limbs are a testament to both its selling point (all of the chickens used for this dish are freshly caught, killed, and shipped that morning) and the restaurant’s origins in Korean cuisine, which values the entire animal – even the ugly parts. 

That Korean influence is more readily felt once diners move past the soft breast meat and find the interior stuffed with glutinous rice, along with a Korean medley of herbs and aromatics – including dates, chestnuts and ginseng. This is actually a play on a traditional Korean dish, samgyetang: a common Korean summer recipe, where a whole chicken is stuffed with the aforementioned ingredients, and left to stew in a broth until the meat is fall-apart tender. Here, the chicken is instead prepared in a Western style, and served on a bed of French fries. 

This dish – which comes with daikon kimchi and two kinds of dipping sauce – happens to be the perfect analogy for what Ms Yoo is striving to be: American on the outside, but Korean on the inside. 

This concept is the brainchild of Esther Choi, the Korean-American owner of the two perennially-popular Mokbar locations in Park Slope and Chelsea MarketMokbar itself also hints at Choi’s upbringing, with a heavily Korean-influenced menu. 

Ms Yoo was designed to be different, and by Ms. Choi’s own admission, heads down a different path than Mokbar‘sWhile the latter is Korean with American accents, Ms Yoo was planned from the start to evoke American tastes, with hints of Korean cuisine sprinkled throughout. 

Most of the menu at Ms Yoo does try to toe that fine line between Korean and American, and broadly speaking, it does an admirable job of marrying the two cuisines while maintaining the essence of what makes both great.

However, there are a few slips and stumbles. Some of these can be attributed to teething problems in the kitchen – open for less than a week at the time of my visit – while others are emblematic of the greater struggle to pair two wildly disparate cuisines. I noticed a pattern: even when one part of the dish was absolutely divine and a portrayal of the heights Ms Yoos kitchen could reach, the other half would bring it back down, leaving the final result decidedly a few steps above average.

The tteok ‘n’ cheese – a deliciously savory amalgam of tteokbokki, a spicy Korean street food, and traditional béchamel – would’ve felt more at home if the marinara dipping sauce actually had a kimchi flavor, like the menu promised. Instead, the sauce only tasted of oversweetened tomatoes, with the faintest suggestion of kimchi’s unique spicy-sour heat.

The popcorn shrimp – or as Ms Yoo adorably calls it, K-Pop shrimp – was perfectly fried, with the tempura-style batter satisfyingly crunchy and not greasy, like bad tempura has a tendency to be. It would’ve been far better without the overtly spicy cho-gochujang dipping sauce that overpowered the delicate shrimp, and sent both myself and my dining partner into a brief coughing fit.

This brings us back to the whole chicken, which was served on top of a bed of meaningless fries that went three-quarters uneaten and had roughly the texture and flavor of salted sawdust(Diners do have the option of replacing the fries with salad, although I doubt many would go for this.)

When the sumptuous, flavor-packed rice drizzled from the bird’s cavities and blanketed the potatoes, that made them much more palatable. I suspect this was the point, although the fries were cold by the time it happened.

To be clear, Ms Yoo serves good food. An argument could even be made that it serves great food: the chicken is a revelation and absolutely worth the visit just by itself, and most everything else on the menu does more right than it does wrong (it’s really hard to go wrong with kimchi bacon onion jam, and boy, Ms Yoo doesn’t).

And their cocktail list, by and large, is solid and features some inventive touches, albeit with one spectacular miss in the Madam Ae-Ma, a Bloody Mary-ish concoction of Korean chili paste, tequila and triple sec with salted Korean pepper flakes around the rim. Served fresh, it reminded me unpleasantly of the leftover dregs of kimchi juice at Korean potlucks. After a few minutes, when the gochujang settled in a thin film at the bottom of the glass, it was downright unappetizing.

My partner’s Mist Whispers Like Woman (the actual name of the cocktail), on the other hand, was delicious, with the forward sweet-and-sour notes of Korean plum perfectly complementing the vodka and lime. The spirits list also offers a selection of wine and beer, including Hite, a Korean lager.

It’s not easy to get Korean fusion right, but when it does happen, it’s magical (kimchi-bulgogi tacos, I’m looking at you). Ms Yoo certainly offers its share of magical moments, although some of those are muddied when the kitchen jumps the proverbial shark. But there’s sparks of inventiveness and real passion here, and it’ll be interesting to see how Ms. Choi and the restaurant tweak their philosophy as time goes on. 

 Rating: Good 

Rating scale: Poor – Fair – Good – Excellent 

Words By: Seung Park

Photography By: Shannon Elliott