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Ester Choi
Photograph: Courtesy Chris Loupos

Chef Esther Choi shares the 10 spots that inspire her most in NYC

The restaurants, bars and famous bridge where the Mŏkbar chef finds inspiration.

Amber Sutherland-Namako
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Amber Sutherland-Namako
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A sense of place is of paramount importance for chef Esther Choi.

“Where I am has really kind of defined what work I do. My environment always inspires me,” Choi, the owner of two Mŏkbar locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn, says. 

Choi was born and spent her formative years in New Jersey, where her Korean grandparents were an enormous part of her upbringing. 

RELATED: Tune into the Time Out New York Instagram at 2pm on Thursday, May 20, for a live takeover featuring Esther Choi.

“I think that really set the tone in terms of what inspired me. When I would go to school I would be just one of the American kids, but I would come home and it would just be this very, very Korean environment, and obviously, my grandparents didn’t speak any English, and that was a big deal for me. Growing up in a town kind of being the only Asians, that really affected the way I perceive myself and my culture,” she says. 

When she was around third grade, Choi’s parents moved the family to Korea. 

“I didn’t speak one word of Korean, so that was very interesting for me at such a young age. Being in elementary school and kind of being engulfed in this cultural environment where it was really about my heritage, that’s where I really learned about my Korean heritage,” she says. 

“A lot of my menu items are inspired by that time when I was in Korea, especially eating street food with some of the local Korean kids I went to school with. That really inspired me in a lot of ways to love my culture.” 

The family returned to New Jersey a few years later, and another few years after that, Choi began her culinary career at a small Korean-Japanese restaurant in town. 

“That’s when I started to fall in love with restaurants and learning about the industry. And then, from there I went to college and when I came to NYC, obviously being in a city as competitive and intense, but also so amazing, that was it for me. It was the dream. Being in New York, obviously, you learn what real hustle means. That led to me opening my restaurants at such a young age and starting my career as a chef.” 

Today, those inspirational people and places are evident in Choi’s menus at her Mŏkbar locations in Chelsea Market and on Flatbush Avenue. She shared even more of her favorite places with us in a recent interview that has been edited for length and clarity. 

1. Her go-to East Village spots

“I always like to go back to the places I really fall in love with, and sometimes those places are not very trendy. They’re ones that are super hole-in-the-wall and go unnoticed. Some spots for me are very old school, like in the East Village. In college, I used to go to Oh Taisho, that place has been there forever. And there’s another spot a couple of doors down called Kenka, and then there’s Sake Bar Decibel. These are the spots where I used to go with my friends and loved, loved, loved the food and I fell in love with the whole Japanese bar scene. These are the places that I still think about and I’m still inspired by.” 

2. Jongro

“There’s classic New York places that I love, that I love to recommend to people. Obviously being Korean, I think it’s almost like a sin if I don’t recommend a Korean barbecue spot, so in K-Town I have my go-to, Jongro. The great thing about K-town is that a lot of the spectacular bars and restaurants are on the second, third, or maybe the 10th floor of these buildings. And you kind of have to just know that there’s a crazy restaurant in one of these random office buildings. So Jongro is one of those places, and it kind of transforms you to Korea in the 70s. It’s fantastic and such a fun environment, so I always recommend that place to anybody who wants to check out K-Town.”

3. Cote

"I also obviously love, love, love Cote, because it’s just kind of a more elevated experience of Korean food, which I think is important. What it’s doing in New York City is kind of paving the movement for being more modern. I love and pay respect to Cote, and I go there pretty often, and the bar underneath as well. The hospitality there is so on point. For a very New York, scene-y atmosphere, Cote is great."

4Shabushabu Mayumon and The Izakaya

"I have two hole-in-the-wall Japanese places that I am obsessed with. There’s this place called Shabushabu Mayumon, which is a shabu shabu omakase. There’s two of them in New York, and they’re both owned by the same female chef, and the entire staff there is run by females and they cook every course in front of you, you know, like a shabu shabu, in the broth.

It’s just such a fun experience when you go there. It’s really special because it’s very very intimate and very intentional. There’s only like six seats, so it’s definitely an experience that’s very special that you can’t really find anywhere. Love, love, love that. There’s another place called The Izakaya, which is more of a casual environment, it’s kind of a Japanese bar, but the food is so delicious. It’s classic Japanese bar food done so well, it’s so delicious. That place you go for the food because it’s on point." 

5. Pastis

"There’s a classic restaurant that I always swear by. I go very often because I know that the service and the food will always be consistent and really, really good, and I love the environmentit’s very classic New Yorkwhich is Pastis. Everybody loves Pastis, and I will always love that place. The original place was always the spot, and I definitely miss it very, very much, but I can’t complain because it came back. 

I just love it because it’s just so consistent and it’s reliable. That’s really important, that’s what I look for in any restaurant environment: being reliable, even 20 years from now, I know it’s going to be exactly the same. There’s some sort of comfort in that, especially the environment in New York City where everything’s changing so fast, so much. It’s one of those types of legendary places."

[Pastis was open at 9 Ninth Avenue from 1999 until 2014. It re-opened nearby at 52 Gansevoort Street in 2019. Ed]

6. Hanyang Mart

"A spot in Flushing that I’m obsessed with is called Hanyang. It’s the original Korean market. It’s such a classic, it’s definitely OG. In the market they source a lot of their produce from local Korean farms upstate New York or in Jersey. They also make fresh tofu in house and they source fresh sesame oil that’s also made locally. Things like that, to be done in New York, is really rare. They’re still doing that, and they’re preserving that art. That, to me, is so special, because even though now you go there and it looks kind of very run down and it looks very hole-in-the-wall compared to these ginormous Asian supermarkets that are coming in, that’s really one of the ones that’s a special gem."

7. Korin 

"Korin is a classic, I’m obsessed with it like any other chef. It’s the place to go to for knives. Korin is the best spot in Tribeca. You go there and you see everybody, you’re like, ‘hey, what’s up!’. Every time I go there I’m like, who am I gonna run into. It’s one of those spots, everybody knows everyone." 

8. Chelsea Market

"I can’t not mention Chelsea Market, even though my restaurant is in Chelsea Marketit seems like I’m biasedbut for years I wasn’t in there with my restaurant. That is still my spot. I worked in the Chelsea Market before I opened my restaurant there, so I’ve seen it really blossom into what it is now. I’ve been in that market for over twelve years, so to me, it can’t not be an inspiration because I’ve just spent so much time there and seen so much development happen within the market and even around the market and it’s so inspiring to see that and all the new, trendy spots that open up."

9. The Brooklyn Bridge

"I have a restaurant in Brooklyn, so I would walk to my restaurant [from Manhattan] every single day last year during corona. That was literally my saving grace, because being cooped up in a New York City tiny apartment, not being able to go out, that was so hard. So I’d walk to work, even though it was a really far walk. For me, that feeling of walking across the bridge every single day, that kind of kept me going. It means a lot to me. It made me feel safe when I did it, it was this calming feeling when the city was really empty. It was a daily reminder of why I live here and what I was doing here. I started walking in the spring and it was still kind early on in corona, so it was really quiet, but you’d see the random New Yorker and we’d both lock eyes and kind of know, and have a feeling of being like, ‘Hey, I’m with you'."

10. Midtown

"We’ve been trying to open a third Mŏkbar location for the past two and a half years, in a food hall in Midtown, and I’m very excited that it’s gonna open in the fall, finally. Don’t forget about Midtown, Midtown is amazing. The shopping on 5th Ave. is amazing, Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Market, all of these places are iconic New York that inspires me. Every time I walk into Grand Central Market I’m amazed because it’s so beautiful. They’re kind of things that you take for granted and you shouldn’t; you look around and it’s so inspirational every day." 

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