I live across the street from Koreatown, Manhattan, so as you’d imagine I have eaten a lot of korean food. Most restaurants on the ktown block are either cafe/bakery types or casual dinner style restaurants, and there are so many late-night 24 hour restaurants as well to accommodate the after-clubbing crowd. If you ask me what’s the best restaurant here, it’s tough to say– out of the ones I’ve tried, they are all very similar in price and quality. Pretty yummy, a little expensive if you’re doing bbq, and often with long lines during dinner rush.
Well, take a walk a few blocks north to 36th street and you’ll find Kristalbelli, a much more high-end Korean restaurant. It has a modest, almost hidden entrance from the street, but the decor inside is worth appreciating and the experience is so unique! For one, each table is equipped with a laughing buddha centerpiece with a crystal belly (I’m guessing, hence the name “kristalbelli”). We were told that the crystal heats up to 2-3 x hotter than the oridinary metal grills.
And since it is transparent, you can see the blue flames underneath — too cool. Something else to note– you won’t see some of the usual kalbi or other marinated meats on the menu. Instead, there’s more American-style steak choices like sirloin, wagyu, and ribeye. The menu is an interesting mix of common dishes like japchae and dumplings, as well as more sophisticated and unique options. We went with a combo, and I was really happy with it. [We actually used a groupon which had a separate menu to order off of, but the selection was good nonetheless.]
A crostini with a schmear of cream cheese, topped with smoked salmon and a dainty sprout. Simple, yummy, not very Korean.
Translation: “dish of 9 dishes.” I’d describe this as a make-your-own korean tacos, with rice cake-like crepes. The presentation was very cute — dainty thin crepes, and a long dish that serves as an assembly line for your fillings + the smallest tongs in the world. Build the “taco” with whatever fillings you want — naturally I tried stuffing a little of everything in, drizzled the dressing, dolloped the red pepper paste, and took a huge bite. The fillings are similar to bibimbap toppings, so that’s the first thing that came to mind when I ate it. Tasty, and a really good date night dish — go ahead, make one for your plus 1.
I couldn’t find this on their regular menu, but our dish was slices of raw tuna wrapped around cabbage and dressed with a light sauce, similar to sushi without the rice. It wasn’t very flavorful, and the tuna was strangely dry. I imagine they might be testing this dish out. Presentation was pretty, but I was missing the sweet taste of fresh tuna.
BBQ: Aged Rib Eye
Our waiter “highly recommended” the aged steak, which is purchased from the same vendor as Peter Luger’s. We happily obliged and asked for a larger portion — meat upgrade! And it was so worth it. Buttery and rich, with a thick layer of fat around the edges and nice marbling, super fresh. The BBQ is full-waiter service, as in you are completely pampered. A bit of fat is trimmed from the steak and used to grease the crystal, the steak is cooked to your desired doneness and you are offered a sample before it is served. Then they leave so you can savor the deliciousness. Some sweet potato and onion are thrown on too as aromatics. We sheepishly asked if they supply lettuce leaves to wrap the meat, so I’ll tell you now that they just don’t do it that way and save you some trouble haha.
It is served with all the accoutrements: a trio of sides (fermented beans, macaroni salad, cucumber kimchi), pickled pink radish slices, kimchi. Again, no seasoning or marinade so you dip the meat into some coarse aged sea salt (did not even know this existed), or some mustardy sauce. I definitely preferred the simplicity of some good salt — it really lets the quality of the meat shine through.
Not much to say, but the meat they use is very tender. It’s standard fare, simple and delicious. It is not served with gochujang and we did not ask, thinking it’s probably also just not done that way. It doesn’t really need it, but I was missing the hint of sweet+spicy.
Korean pancakes! Filled with brown sugar, honey, pine nuts, and cinnamon, served with vanilla ice cream. Oh my god-level deliciousness. It is made from rice flour so it’s like a flattened mochi, filled with melty sugary goodness, and fried until crisp on both sides. I was getting ridiculously full at this point but I could not stop eating it. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. It’s something that I haven’t really seen at any other Korean restaurants, aside from Grace St which I believe is only served after 5pm.
I’ve been obsessed/stuck on this fancy-sounding Italian dessert after watching a Bobby Flay marathon. Affogato sounds fancy, but is really quite a simple nonetheless delicious and lovely dessert. It is traditionally a scoop of gelato topped with a shot of espresso. Here is an Asian take — ice cream mochi topped with a dollop of red bean paste with sweetened condensed green tea that you drizzle to your liking. We poured the entire thing in, a bit too hastily, and it ended up being too sweet for my taste. The condensed green tea is VERY sweet, so proceed with caution. All of the other components are also very sweet, so it was a bit of a sugar overload. I would’ve liked a tall glass of milk to go with it, or to dilute the tea. If you like patbingsu, mochi, or matcha, you will probably enjoy this.
Rice Cake Ice Cream
Aka, mochi. We got sent this dessert by accident, so it was graciously deemed on the house. Essentially it was the same as the affogato, with less components. Kind of meh, wouldn’t recommend. These are easy to find at any Asian grocery store.
All in all, Kristabelli deserves a 4.5/5.
The service was excellent throughout the entire meal. The waiters are fluent in English, something very notable for a Korean restaurant, and were present but not overbearing. Ours was so knowledgeable about everything! We threw a lot of questions at him and he had the answers. I think this is an awesome restaurant for higher-end barbecue and Korean food. Because a “higher-end” Asian restaurant is difficult to come by, I think this deserves some credit. You won’t smell like smoke when you leave either, because there are built-in vents around the crystal center — VERY appreciated.