Gemini delicacies take center stage, shiny and evocative. You will see them as soon as you open the heavy glass door to the Yangban Society. Your attention can be directed in many directions — the upstairs kitchen overlooking the 5,000-square-foot space like a spacecraft command center, a market area in the far corner delineated by its striking cobalt blue hue — but the key decisions start at the Deli counter where two rounds of Ppang have been strategically placed.
The loaves have deep-browned crusts that resemble a cross between focaccia and deep-dish pizza; The fluffy bread at its center is topped with kimchi and marinara, and one variant features a weighted topping of melted mozzarella.
For the record:
8:53 p.m. March 17, 2022The first reference to the chef couple misspelled his last name, which is Hong.
A member of staff places a slice of ppang in the toaster to warm it up while you consider the rest of the options. Some of the dishes on display – radish pickles or mushrooms paired with gently chewy fern ferns in nutty perilla oil or tangles of acorn flour noodles – evoke an uplifting array of banchan. Others, like dilled egg salad or a creamy, smoked trout stew with horseradish, conjure up staples of Jewish delicacies. Plenty of cleverly spiced vegetable side dishes (honey-roasted carrots, crispy from candied walnuts spiced with Korean red chilies; charcoal-roasted cabbage salad spiked with grapefruit-like oro blanco and dressed in ssamjang vinaigrette; a reedy tangle of pea sprouts and chives, topped off with buttered panko ) seem to have come exclusively from the minds of chefs and owners Katianna and John Hong.
But wait — there’s an entirely separate menu with items made to order in the kitchen. Maybe toss in some twice-fried chicken wings that are brushed with soy-garlic glaze, crispy and gooey at the same time. Or pork belly and kimchi fried rice, that’s enough for a table of four. Congee pot pie? Mustard-Avocado-Asian Pear Salad? We’ll get to those shortly.
For drinks, look for water and other staples in the cooler across from the counter, or head upstairs to the market area to browse the plethora of options: canned cocktails (a Negroni spritz or sake and tonic), bottles of champagne and natural wine, Korean beer and hard Kombucha brewed with blueberries. Grab a bag of churros-flavored turtle chips and maybe some nicely wrapped sandalwood incense for later.
When you finally sit down at a table — upstairs, say, beneath rows of portraits and street scenes by Seoul photographer Wook Kim, or outside along the brick-lined alley opposite the Warner Music building in the Arts District — and start feasting, the Die Intent behind cooking clicks like an animated puzzle that arranges itself in place. The multipurpose aspects of the ambitious project, the flavors that connect cultures: it all makes delicious sense.
Katianna and John, who are married, have taken their restaurant’s name with sharp irony. The yangban were a ruling class of political and artistic elites in Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, which lasted for over five centuries (until 1910, when Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea began). The couple conceived the Yangban Society as an egalitarian experience, a place to eat or take out where they value a $5 slice of kimchi-laced ppang as much as they do a $34 plate of braised ribs on millet rice.
They arrived at their philosophy after years of working in exclusive fine dining areas. The chefs met while cooking at Mélisse in Santa Monica. Katianna relocated north to be part of the kitchen team at the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa (which has three Michelin stars and is being rebuilt after being destroyed in the 2020 Glass fire). Under Christopher Kostow she rose to chef de cuisine; When she left to run Kostow’s more casual Charter Oak, John took over as executive chef at the Meadowood.
In an article Jean Trinh wrote for The Times about how the Hongs have redefined their Korean-American identity through their yangban society cooking, she noted that the couple used a trip to South Korea together as an impetus for gaining their personal Restaurant menus labeled for information. “It’s about being proud and educating myself even deeper [about the Korean culture]and find closure in it,” John told her.
Returning to Los Angeles, the pair are among some key local talents, blending innovative ideas with the region’s rich Korean restaurant culture. Kwang Uh caused a national sensation over the past decade with wild flights of fermentation and complex variations of salads and rice dishes he conceived in the now-closed Baroo; At Shiku, the Grand Central Market diner Uh runs with his wife, Mina Park, his intricate versions of kimchi hint at his still-relentless innovation. Ki Kim has sprinkled winter truffles over bibimbap and reinvented beef galbi with turnips at Kinn, his new tasting menu restaurant in K-Town. Jihee Kim brought banchan traditions to Southern California farmers’ markets via her pop-up Perilla LA, which will soon become a store in Echo Park.
The Hongs have given themselves plenty of room for experimentation, both figuratively and literally. Yangban’s basic deli format — with a menu that also stretches far beyond the class parameters of the deli experience — has more in common with the ecstatic mayhem of Gjusta than the soothing order of Langer’s. It can be overwhelming to narrow down the options. I’ve grown on a few favorites: A rippling, flaky, square biscuit covered in curry sauce, seasoned with ground beef and pork. The avocado and pear salad, with its smooth, crunchy texture, contrasts with its tart mustard vinaigrette that clears the mind. The incredible congee pot pie, its chicken mash with a hint of ginger and its pastry cap reminiscent of crispy youtiao is cut into pieces and stirred into the soup.
A general suggestion: follow the potato. It leads to excellence, whether in the form of hot grilled pies (an ideal vehicle for the smoked trout loin), twice baked potatoes smashed with fish sauce caramel, a glorious take on chili and cheese fries with a Bolognese riff, deepened with black bean sauce or potato fritters similar to beignets but denser and richer. Speaking of dessert, it’s a case where the choices are cleverly limited. They have the donuts and also buffalo milk soft serve from Double 8 Dairy in Petaluma. Make a sundae from the crowd of available toppings (salted doenjang caramel, puffed rice, chocolate rice cake, mochi, bingsu topper), but be sure to dig up a few pure spoons: the ice cream’s smooth sweetness is a treat in itself.
These talented chefs have one eye on cooking: so much of it lands in the sweet spot of intelligent, surprising combinations and pathetic joy. The biggest challenge for Yanbang Society will be space.
Looking to open their first restaurant, John and Katianna teamed up with Sprout LA, the group that supports crowd pleasers like République, Tsubaki and Redbird. Katianna told me the company was wary of signing a new lease while the Hongs searched for the right solution during the darkest months of the pandemic. Would they consider the sprawling space of Sprout LA vacated by Lincoln Carson’s sadly short-lived Bon Temps? It was certainly large enough to house their many ambitions.
It is difficult to say why this particular quality of Angelenos is hard to remember; I remember Bon Temps struggling to find a consistent audience before 2020 forced its demise. The address is just a block from the always packed Bestia, so location can’t be the only reason. Aware that some guests consider this area of town more of an overnight destination than an occasional stopover, John and Katianna are starting this month with limited reservations for a $50-per-person chef’s choice dinner. It will feature early hits like congee pot pie (gilded with abalone) and Galbi-style beef ribs.
The Yangban Society feels like a work in progress in its layout: will the market area remain? Will the deli and separate kitchen menu eventually merge into one easier-to-navigate experience? More importantly, the food is prepared instantly and is beautifully Los Angeles in its freshness and confident individualism. It’s a place where Angelenos should be eating now, in step with the chefs as they develop their business and we emerge from some dismal years.
https://www.latimes.com/food/story/2022-03-17/yangban-society-arts-district-korean-american-deli-bill-addison-review Flashback: Korean American Deli Yangban Society is going big