The greatest challenge at Mono Mono in the East Village, the new, Downtown branch of MJ Chung’s fried-chicken empire, is getting a drink.
When I was there recently, getting service involved a lot of hand gestures, "excuse me misses" and some mild begging. After the latter, and about 20 minutes, I managed to acquire two bright and freshtasting soju mojitos ($10 each), one mixed with crushed, neon bright raspberries and the other with a glowing, pale pink lychee. Later, getting a pint of the smooth, not-sogingery Ginger Man Ale ($8), took half the time, and getting a cold bottle of Victory Golden Monkey ($7) was even less. All the drinks were well worth the wait, but the timing and service fluctuation remained problematic throughout recent visits.
After looking around trying to catch the eye of a server, my date and I decided the cute girl in the short, sparkly skirt was our waitress, given that she rushed to and from the tables around us. Unfortunately, we did not make her acquaintance and finally had to flag down the hostess to take our order. First on the list of things I wanted to try was the Korean fried chicken, a house specialty comprised of wings and small drumsticks that come coated in a sweet and sticky soy garlic sauce or the fiery “hot and spicy” style ($16.95 for medium or $21.95 for large). Get a combo of the two flavors for a solid experience. Both kinds have the same crackly, paper-thin skin that locks in the rich juices and keeps the meat tender. This texture is a result of deep-frying the birds twice, which also makes them taste less oily than normal fried chicken.
Of course, we didn’t stop at the fried chicken. The restaurant also specializes in mung bean pancakes ($4.95 and up). These tea-saucer sized “cakes” don’t have much flavor on their own; you need to spruce them up with an array of ingredients like shrimp, clam, lobster, chicken, beef, kimchi, shallots, mushrooms or a whole lot of veggies. We tried a pair with fragrant asparagus chunks and diced scallops, which lost their texture and sea-fresh flavor when paired with the chewy, oily dough. I fared better another night when they were offering duck on the menu (since gone), and combined it with spicy kimchi.
The rest of the menu contains a handful of seafood-heavy salads, an eclectic collection of worldwide appetizers like Mexican corn ($3.95), rosemary-and-bacon-laced French fries ($8.95), wasabi calamari ($10.95) that comes sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and a wide selection of unremarkable sushi.
Though quality of the food and service was inconsistent during my visits, no one could argue that the depth of the space proved amazing. Housed in the old sushi and karaoke joint Jeollado, Mono Mono took control of the space and decked it out head-to-toe with dark, raw wood, giving it the feel of a cabin—albeit one featuring a brightly lit glass wall containing 30,000plus jazz records. If you look up you can see a selection of the vinyl rotating around the room on a conveyer belt, choices that are made by the clientele and played at extraordinarily loud volumes by a DJ upstairs. As we tried to have a conversation over Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis blasting from above, we gave up and watched the cooks preparing the chicken and sushi through the picture window across from us.
If you want to sit closer to the front, a quieter spot to boot, you can grab a stool at the working piano that doubles as a table. The bar across from this unique arrangement also offers a spectacle as the high-tech beer machine makes the bartender unnecessary—it even tilts the glass! Also automated is the front room, which can be part of the whole restaurant, or sectioned off by a roof that can be let down like a garage door for private parties.
All considered, Mono Mono is definitely a place worth seeing—even eating there isn’t a bad idea, if you can get someone to serve you.
Mono Mono, 116 E. 4th St. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 212-466-6660.