With his latest restaurant, chef Sungchul Shim has established a pattern of opening a great new place every other year. First was Kochi, in 2019, followed by Mari in 2021, then Don Don this past September. In between, he’s also collected Michelin stars for the first two, and snuck in Mari Ne as a more casual iteration of its namesake. Don Don, the latest expansion in the Shim culinary universe, takes us from Korean skewers to hand rolls to barbecue.
“A restaurant is not only selling the food,” Shim tells me by phone the day of Mari’s debut. “The guests have to enjoy, they have to have a good experience. They come here not just for a meal. So I try to give them more fun.”
Mari is fun, as is Kochi, particularly for expensive tasting destinations where the evening’s spend starts at $145 per person. But Don Don’s a hoot.
It’s also already popular, and there isn’t really anywhere to stand and wait for reserved tables, and the doorway bottlenecks pretty easily, but it’s all upbeat enough to land more like a lark than a nuisance. It feels effortless, like the team and the menu and the space’s crowded grill-top tables just happen to happily coalesce even though it’s all the product of Shim’s experience and tremendous talent as a chef and restaurateur.
His foray into Korean BBQ is also considerably more affordable than its lauded predecessors. The $80 butcher’s special is reasonably suited for two, and comes with each of Don Don’s five cuts: bone-in pork loin, belly, collar, jowl and rib (also listed à la carte for $35-$59), preceded by housemade banchan including peak daikon and onion kimchi.
Also included, the jeon is a warm, welcoming introduction, its rectangular scallion-packed pancake yielding pleasantly from crisp to soft. Gyeran jjim and jjigae are both available separately, and both are very good. The former’s is the best $5 you can spend on eggs in New York City, the anchovy dashi-enhanced soufflé as light and lovely as a magic carpet ride. The latter stews ($17) are vibrant bouquets of items like kimchi, tofu, squash and dainty mushrooms across three varieties.
This is all, of course, pre-pork, Don Don’s exclusive specialty, dry-aged on-site for amplified tenderness, and displayed in slabs behind glass toward the back of the long, bustling space. The staff gets it sizzling atop the table alongside ramekins of sensational, slowly-roasting garlic cloves, savory smoke perfuming the air. They more or less take the lead on shepherding the swine’s preparation to achieve a cheek’s satiny finish or the leaner loin’s heartier bite. Don Don, electric as it is, makes it easy to relax and chat (if a bit hard to hear), creating, of course, the danger that if you let anything sizzle too long it’ll be overdone before it’s gone. And unrushed as it is, in spite of the obvious demand, you’ll have to enforce that final cook time yourself.
The Vibe: Party-light, absent the expectation of having to make small talk with strangers.
The Food: All-pork Korean barbecue dry-aged in-house; great jeon, delightful gyeran jjim and wonderful jjigae.
The Drinks: Soju, makgeolli, sake, beer.
Don Don is located at 37 West 43rd Street. It is open Monday-Thursday from 11:30am-11pm and Friday-Sunday from 11am–2 am.