Onjium at Genesis House Offers Korean Cuisine From a Car Showroom
photographs by Daniel Krieger
Of the many small, weird things that happened at the end of 2021 was the opening of a very good Korean restaurant, maybe the best in New York City, on the second floor of a car showroom in Manhattan. The restaurant in question is Onjium, a lauded Seoul establishment specializing in royal cuisine from the Joseon dynasty as well as an ancient noble cuisine called banga. The showroom in question is called the Genesis House, a three-story 45,000 square foot glimmering structure on the far West Side. The showroom, as you might expect, has cars in it, not many but the ones on display are sleek and seem to purr even when dormant. This is future shit. One model, the GV60, even has a crystal ball as a shifter. The question that occurred to me on a recent dinner at Onjium is whether this wasn’t just the future of cars but of restaurants too.
It’s not as if there isn’t a history of very good restaurants existing in showrooms. A few blocks South, Lexus pioneered the concept with Intersect by Lexus, a fine dining restaurant with a rotating roster of chefs that opened in 2012. Currently the chef in residence is Nina Compton from Le Pere Lapin in New Orleans. The idea of car houses isn’t exactly new either. In Manhattan, where no one needs a car, a so-called house is a neat way to be there but not waste space with cars no one wants. Previous iterations have included the Cadillac House which opened in Soho in 2008 and closed four years later. (The team hightailed it back to Detroit.) And A/D/O, a multidisciplinary design space opened in 2017 in Greenpoint by Mini, which even had its own restaurant by Claus Myer. (That closed in 2020.)
But this hits a little different. One reason is the wholesale conflagration of New York restaurants caused by the intersection of a few poopy trends. Obviously the last two years have been the pits for restaurants—and much else—in New York City. Not a day goes by that I don’t recite the mourner’s kaddish for a beloved spot that returned to dust. Yis-gadal v’yis-kadash sh’may rabo. But it’s not like 2019 was an annus mirabilis either. Bitching about rent in New York is a hallowed past time, nearly as universal as kvetching about the Mets. Restaurateurs have been squeezed since time immemorial by the high cost of labor and real estate and the fickleness of New York diners. Even before COVID, there was enough churn of storefront restaurants to make vast vats of buttermilk, curdled by the salty tears of a dream shattered. The piston-like pressure to make rent resulted in many experimental, ambitious and overall bomb-diggity restaurants prematurely dying while those that did survive were strangely conservative. I remember one chef calling it the tyranny of the cheeseburger, meaning that, though it went against every fiber in his body, he knew he needed butts in seats guaranteed night-over-night and that the way to do that were down-the-middle crowd pleasers. No one is a chef to make cheeseburgers.
So two trends, right there—the COVID die-off of 2020 and 2021 plus a more inexorably pythoning of small restaurants by the high costs of doing business—didn’t help things. But it wasn’t as if every type of restaurant suffered. From the vacant storefronts rose great gleaming towers of glass. As both commercial and residential developers flew Icarus-like skyward, offering oligarchs fig-leafed anonymity behind LLCs an empyrean to park their mammon, they brought restaurateurs with them. Condo-mainia competed for ever more outre amenities and these frequently included a new restaurant. Remember TAK Room, Thomas Keller’s short-lived but high-ambitioned fine dining restaurant in the Hudson Yards? More recently, and successfully, is Le Pavillon, Daniel Boulud’s newest venture, housed on the second floor of a $3.3 billion dollar development near Grand Central. They join a stable of highly cloistered luxury dining experiences from the Four Seasons Restaurant, tucked in the Seagram’s Building, as well as new, and ever more removed, restaurants like Saga, where hours-long prix fixe meals are served on the 63rd floor of a towering Art Deco building in the Financial District.
Seen from this (slightly) historical view, Onjium at the Genesis House certainly does seem like the future for restaurants in New York. Or at least a future. In this future, only the most well-capitalized restaurants survive, restaurants like this one that have an external source of support, whether from a car company or through a sweetheart deal with a developer. And these restaurants will be spacious indeed and luxurious too and one can enjoy that luxury without the prying eyes of the hoi polloi who, not only will not be able to partake due to financial consideration, but will likely not even be aware of the experience unfolding at all. At the same time, restaurants, as an independent business, will be replaced by “experiential marketing,” which makes sense of course when they are supported by a parent brand. (This was pioneered at ABC Kitchen, where Dan Kluger served dinner on plates and tables available for purchase.) Dinner, that is, will be in service of a sedan rather than dinner service being just dinner.
What this means is restaurants will cease to be free-standing enterprises and that’s a danger indeed. In fact, it was just announced Lexus would be closing Intersect at Lexus this month. It was a universally beloved restaurant and this latest chef, Nina Compton, was its most popular. But a restaurant simply no longer aligned with Lexus’ corporate direction, and so, come January 15th, the intersect will cease to intersect any longer.
At Onjium, where the dubu is fresh, snow crab bursts from an abalone custard and the makgeolli flows, one can’t quibble with the delight therein offered. It is refinement upon refinement upon refinement and a quantum leap forward for Korean cuisine in New York. The model itself is certainly as sleek, seamless and impeccable as the cars downstairs. But I can’t help but mourn that this genesis comes at the cost of the messy world outside, where restaurants are the semi-permeable membrane between street and dinner, self and other, a nourishing banquet full of scabrous hustlers and crazy-eyed chefs dying to feed you.
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