Dining with the big fish from Little Fish, Korean-Philly Chef Alex Yoon, at Volver.
Still in the throes of May’s Pacific Islander month, Korean-Philly chef and Little Fish owner Alex Yoon told me – before my dining experience at Volver for Jose Garces’ ever-shifting in-residency program – that heritage is the deepest, tastiest spice in his arsenal.
“I think that through my dishes – at Little Fish and for my Volver residency – diners are able to see and taste the complexity of flavors,” said Yoon in relationship to connecting the dots of Korean cooking. At the end of the day, I am pushing for Korean food to be more popular with the mainstream and that is why I am bringing these dishes to Volver. We give people pleasure in the hospitality business. Food is in a way a reflection of us trying to take care of other people. I am not trying to create some Asian-fusion food, I want to create something different and have people be like, “you know that was pretty good”. Hopefully, this will get people to try new things. And I become pretty laser-focused on each dish that I create – can block everything else out – when I am in the kitchen doing this.”
You can taste the intensity of Yoon’s mission, intent, and flavor profiles (to say nothing of his stretch to include new meat and vegan menu options planned for a potential second Alex Yoon spot beyond the seafood of South Philly’s Little Fish which he’s owned for six years).
Per usual, Garces’ Volver chef-in-residence program features a menu that allows you to choose items from both Iron Chef Jose (always great, and a solid option so to mix and match two highly personalized chef experiences) and his visiting guest.
This time out, save for my Garces’ minted Pedraza cocktail of Corazón tequila, Aperol, grapefruit and rosemary and the fine, flatbread-y Tarte Flambée of Crème fraîche, chervil, Fromage blanc, and bacon lardons, dosage MAGAZINE’s dining partners and I went on Yoon’s singular adventure.
What we got, of course, was Yoon’s seafood signatures, all of which were magnetic, nuanced, delicate, yet hearty – which is not always a thing when you dine on fish. Admit it. It can leave even the skinniest diner, like myself, hungry. Yoon’s starters, though, were as full bodied as any main meal, with its Kohlrabi-zesty chilled shrimp salad and his just spicy-enough grilled octopus and Jalapeno Kewpie glaze. I love the peanuty crunch. It’s all about textures for me.
Here’s where the Alex Yoon challenge begins, however, as we had to experience the experiments he’s preparing for his soon-to-debut non-so-seafood-filled restaurant. Yes, the ever-so-slightly smoked and fleshy steamed local black bass with really thin, slippery glass noodles in Dashi broth was, is brilliant. Somehow, Yoon made it so that the bass was dense, delicate and juicy.
What really showed Yoon’s metal was how well he maneuvered through the promise of chicken and short ribs. Yoon’s Korean fried chicken in fermented pepper sauce with charred scallions was crazy deconstructed stuff with the lightest ever, fluffy batter-coating-cake surrounding each tender morsel of chicken. This city is big on Korean fried chicken, but when Alex Yoon starts selling this on the regular, the game is changed.
Yoon’s “Ssam,” a leafy wrap experience that I recently had with Peter Serpico’s new Korean-envisioned K-POD in West Philly, came with wide broad sheaves of lettuce and soft, melt-in-your-mouth short rib. However, Yoon went for an Asian pear soy glaze, which caused a near-battle at the table as to who would get the next mouthful.
If Alex Yoon’s menu at Volver can get me to start punching someone for the next bite, he’s done his job well. Great stuff.