The gas burners at Cote will never give you the sharp, dark, crackling edges that you find in the charcoal-grilled meats at Mapo Korean BBQ in Queens (and almost nowhere else in the city). The beef, though, is in all likelihood the best at any Korean barbecue place in New York. Its two closest competitors for steak supremacy are probably Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong and Gaonnuri, and neither can match Cote for richness and concentrated flavor.
One night I ignored the butcher’s feast path and went off-road so I could try some sirloin that had been ripening downstairs for 138 days. Steaks aged that long are often described as funky, but the word doesn’t cover this piece of meat. It tasted like something other than beef, or maybe beyond beef, more condiment than protein. At $80 for six ounces, it was not my cup of barley tea, but it may be yours.
Next time, I’ll stick to the road more traveled by. The butcher’s feast takes in most of the menu’s highlights, avoids the lowlights, and does so at a very good price for a steak supper.
No matter what or how you order, though, you will have to contend with Cote’s notions of when to serve the condiments and side dishes that make the difference between Korean barbecue and a heap of grilled meat. Pickled cauliflower and soy-marinated chayote (both very good), lettuce and ssamjang (the fermented bean paste) arrive as the beef starts cooking. Rice doesn’t turn up until midway through the meal, when you’re finally brought pickled daikon, kimchi, kimchi stew and fermented bean-paste stew. Gochujang may show up at the beginning or at halftime.
There is no one right way to eat Korean barbecue, but people who like to bundle the meat into lettuce or shiso with a lump of rice and a pickled cabbage leaf will wonder why Cote parcels the side dishes out in stages.
That isn’t the only case of the missing kimchi. I couldn’t taste it in the fried rice “paella” with kimchi and Wagyu. The dish didn’t have much in common with paella, either. I wouldn’t care what it was called if it were delicious, but like some of the other attempts to loosen Korean custom, it came off as timid.
Simon Kim, the owner, keeps saying in interviews that Cote is a Korean steakhouse. I understand why he wants to draw attention to the steak, but anybody who shows up expecting a kimchi-fied Smith & Wollensky is going to be very confused.
You will search in vain for a baked potato or creamed spinach on David Shim’s menu. You can, however, get a shrimp cocktail with gochujang cocktail sauce, an idea that’s not as good as it sounds. You can eat an adapted wedge salad with candylike lumps of bacon and an unresponsive tofu-sesame dressing. And, in a homage to Peter Luger, there is bacon as an appetizer, which turns out to be unsmoked and uncured pork jowl. It’s better with a smear of ssamjang, but then most everything is.
More traditional Korean dishes tended to taste more complete. If you want more starch than rice alone, the skinny wheat noodles in hot anchovy broth are simple and delicious. Cold noodles stirred at the table with slivered apples, lettuce and gochujang are spicy, sweet and refreshing. There’s a very good dolsot bibimbap, with a chewy bottom crust where the rice meets the searingly hot bowl.
Aside from the meat locker, the other useful idea Cote borrowed from steakhouses is a wine list that is chosen with beef in mind and can run into real money if you’re not careful. Anyone hoping to find a red for less than $100 will find that a quick glance at, say, California or the Côte d’Or can be discouraging. But Victoria James, who wrote the list, found some pockets of affordability in Beaujolais, Southern France, Corsica and Switzerland, and she makes a small adventure out of the wines by the glass, all poured from magnums.
Does Brouilly go with ssamjang? Can a Patrimonio get along with galbi? I didn’t know I wanted answers to these questions before Cote came along, but now I do.