Mrs. Kim’s is the happy outcome of a welcome transformation of River Barrel Cafe, a middling new American spot in Greenpoint, into an inventive Korean restaurant. When River Barrel’s chef left earlier this year, one of its owners, Lisa Kim, partially filled the gap with her own Korean cooking. Then she hired chef Jonathan Meyer, who, inspired by her concoctions, encouraged a menu overhaul. And Mrs. Kim’s, offering an innovative mix of contemporary Korean comfort food with locavore leanings, was born.
The fusion of these two approaches has yielded a fresh, fluid menu divided between small dishes and “dinner” that evolves with the growing season. The specifics of numerous dishes change according to what locally grown vegetables are available, and two Korean staples, kimchi and bibimbop, form a perfect marriage of these interests. Unlike at many other Korean places, Mrs. Kim’s kimchi ($6) must be ordered as a separate small plate, and is not delivered automatically with the meal. But the superior caliber easily qualifies it as a dish all its own. A recent batch included crunchy celery and daikon radishes, pungent sesame leaves, delightfully wilted napa cabbage and delicate cucumber, with just the right ratio of tang to spice and salt. And earlier in the summer, sorrel, dandelion greens and kale were equally dazzling. The superb bibimbop ($13), served in the traditional hot stone bowl, also benefits from a rotating seasonal selection of beautifully prepared vegetables such as carrots, asparagus and mushrooms, as well as more exotic ingredients like balloon flower root, and can include poached egg and pork.
One of the best small dishes, the spicy rice cakes ($9), combined springy cylinders with a powerful red chili sauce and sweet sugar snap peas. But the steamed tofu buns ($9) were lackluster, with a slab of bland tofu and a tiny sliver of pickled cucumber, a few scallions and a bit of green sauce sandwiched in a soft roll. Of the entrées, the hearty Korean pancakes ($13), loaded with scallions and spring onions (earlier in the summer, green garlic and pickled ramps made appearances), were vastly superior to the greasy disks that can be found elsewhere. And the Korean fried chicken’s ($15) crispy sweet shell was similarly light on oil and slathered with a satisfyingly tangy sauce. and one of the holdovers from the old menu, a hamburger ($12), has been upgraded to Painted Hills natural beef on a roll from Amy’s Bread, which offers a straightforward safe bet for someone who isn’t in the mood for Korean food.
As word has spread about Mrs. Kim’s Korean-focused food and its expansive feel, with wide windows that open to the sidewalk and cafe seating outside, the restaurant has become increasingly popular—but Mrs. Kim’s seems to be regularly understaffed with a crew that hasn’t totally adapted to the menu revision. Though the wait-staff is friendly, on one occasion, dinner entrées were served before the small dishes, though the order was made simultaneously. And the bibimbop has twice been delivered without the requisite gochujang, the fiery hot chili paste that is essential to the dish.
Mrs. Kim’s has recently hired a new chef, Flavio Santos, who’s shifted some of the menu away from its Korean emphasis—for instance, converting the P.E.I. mussels from a dish flavored with ginger and the sour Japanese fruit yuzu to one that’s cooked with white wine and garlic. And he’s offering specials like truffle-infused macaroni and cheese. Mrs. Kim’s succeeds because of its inspired Korean food, and though seasonal changes to the menu make sense, a drift away from its firm foundation would certainly muddle the spectacular debut Mrs. Kim’s has made.
>> Mrs. Kim’s
160 Franklin St. (at Kent St.), Brooklyn, 718-389-8881.