BonChon Midtown is an ambitious new Korean Asian fusion restaurant just up the street from the UN campus.
Or BonChon Midtown is a lively Midtown sports bar with 27 draft beers, a loud rock soundtrack and four — count ’em! four! — giant TV screens.
Take your pick. This is a clearly a restaurant with a split personality.
Whatever your point of view, this is not your typical Korean restaurant. True, garlic and chili pepper appear in many dishes, as does a sticky-style steamed rice. Then there’s the mandatory bulgogi, the classic dish of barbecued marinated beef; the supersize house version is a thinly sliced rib-eye steak served with sautéed onions, shredded carrot and mushrooms on a sizzling cast-iron platter.
But there’s also a “bulgogi burger” made with beef from New York name-brand butcher Pat LaFrieda, served as part of a lunch special with excellent fries at a very well priced $9. And kimchee appears nowhere on the menu.
BonChon started in 2002 as a South Korean fried chicken restaurant. It soon became a chain that spread around the world, arriving in the United States in 2006. But the outfit apparently allows individual franchises to develop their own menus beyond the fried chicken, which, by the way is quite good.
The house chicken is twice fried, once after a light battering and then after it is glazed with a sauce. And you can choose your glaze: “hot and spicy” or soy sauce and garlic or both. A lunch special serves up five wings and a drumstick with rice for $8. Or if you’re having dinner with a few friends, you can order up 200 boneless breasts for $160.
The standout dish at our table was a platter of three beef short-rib sliders, at a bargain $11, with the shredded meat stacked high on carrot slivers, cucumber and lettuce. Shoestring fries ($7) came sprinkled with truffle oil, sea salt and a red-pepper-spiced mayo-based dipping sauce.
An enormous chicken breast cutlet (katsudon) was deep-fried in a crunchy batter and laid to rest on a bed of rice. It came with a green salad topped with a poached egg ($12). A flaw in this chicken-meets-egg medley was an overcooked yolk.
The BonChon marinated-chicken fried rice and the Seoul rice bowl were less interesting. And the duk-boki ($11) was too far out there. The menu describes it as a dish of “stir-fried rice cake, fish cake, spicy Korean broth and melted mozzarella.” Adding “fresh seafood” tacked on $4.
But the fish-cake slices were slight and fishy and the “rice cake” was oversize cylinders of rice pasta on the gluey side. The supplemental fresh seafood consisted of maybe two small bits of shrimp. That all came in a fiery red-sauce swamp that in no way could be described as a “broth.” The mozzarella was undetectable, but the whole thing still resembled a liquid pizza — more soupy than solid.
BonChon boasts a full bar and an impressive range of beers on draft and in bottles. There’s also plenty of soju, a Korean distilled beverage similar to a vodka but sweeter.
Many customers appear to come in more for the drinks than the food, and that’s perhaps the main reason for its split personality. The giant-screen TVs, constantly beaming ESPN, news and entertainment into every corner of the room, are distracting if you’re not there to watch TV. When the TVs are silent, pounding rock music is a challenge to conversation.
But conversation here is not the point. People come for the food and drinks, not to mention the prices, which are pretty reasonable considering the generous size of many dishes.
BonChon Midtown opens every day at 11:30 a.m. The kitchen closes at 10:45 p.m., but you can linger over drinks until 1 a.m. The restaurant is at 957 Second Avenue between 50th and 51st Street. (212) 308-8810.