Bungeo-ppang, a fish-shaped waffle, is a beloved Korean pastry that’s typically stuffed with sweet red-bean paste. At the new NoMad restaurant Little Mad, from the owners of Atomix and Her Name Is Han, the thirty-three-year-old chef Sol Han’s bungeo-ppang is an amuse-bouche made savory with a scallion-laden batter, hollowed of filling and fluffed up in texture. The reinvented fish bun arrives sitting next to a pat of rich seaweed butter, seeming cannily aware of its metamorphosis. “Is it a scallion pancake or bread or a Korean pastry?” Han asked when I spoke to him recently. “I like to say, ‘It’s just a Little Mad.’ ”
This opening salvo sets the tone for the Korean-inflected cuisine, which, considering the restaurant’s proximity to the merry chaos of K-town, seems determined to establish its own identity. With a sleek open kitchen and a tapas-style menu (there are no entrées, only small and slightly less small plates), Little Mad cultivates a spare, cosmopolitan cool. Han, who moved from Korea to New York at the age of seven, grew up helping at his parents’ Japanese restaurant and has worked in upscale Italian and French kitchens. An effortless ease with both the East and the West informs his boldness of vision and his tilt toward experimentation and reinvention.
The rice dish (at thirty-one dollars, it ranks among the most expensive items on the menu) is built for extravagance and decadence.
At their most successful, Han’s creations are dazzlingly poetic. Take the yellowtail dish, which grew out of Han’s frustration with the usual presentation of his favorite fish. “I’ve only seen it served flat, and I wanted to give it height,” he told me. His solution—to sandwich a thin sashimi slice between translucent wafers of Asian pear—is elegant and sculptural, evoking a fish swimming through an emerald-and-yellow pool of scallion oil and lemon juice. “The dressing is something my parents used on the house salad at their restaurant for twenty years,” he said. “So this is also my way of paying tribute to them.”
For the crispy pig-ear salad, cartilage-veined ribbons are braised, deep-fried, and nestled atop frisée. The dressing, a fermented-shrimp vinaigrette with kombu aioli, cuts through the richness of the pig ears while supplying a turbocharged explosion of umami—not bad for something Han describes as “super easy and snacky.” When asked to define Mad in the context of Little Mad, Han laughed and said it was probably some combination of “crazy, funky, different, and creative.”
An effortless ease with both the East and the West informs Han’s tilt toward experimentation and reinvention.
One of the restaurant’s most Instagrammable dishes is the beef tartare, which comes with oversized moss-green chips, made from maesaengi seaweed, in the shape of elephant ears. It’s presented with a miniature wooden hammer, to break the chips into shards for scooping the meat. All this theatre is innocuous enough, yet it comes off as gratuitous pageantry—why couldn’t the chips be crushed in the kitchen? One diner, who was trying to determine whether the beef or the chips needed hammering, said that it seemed to be the kind of gimmick that felt indulgent rather than delightful.
The Tuna Mul-hwe is another dish that tries perhaps a bit too hard. Mul-hwe, which means “seafood in water,” is a Korean summer favorite that features ice cubes in a cold broth. To make it Mad, Han swaps the cubes for a tomato slushie, which peeks out from under a stack of jalapeño, cucumber, and red onion. The concept is novel, but the slushie—which caused, in one diner, a “spicy brain freeze”—feels like an unnecessary distraction.
The menu ends on a strong note, with a rice dish built for extravagance. (At thirty-one dollars, it’s among the most expensive items here.) Han told me that he remembered the way his white friends ate rice when they were younger—with a spoonful of butter. This inspired him to mingle the meaty flavors of roasted maitake and oyster mushrooms with marrow, scraped from the bone tableside. It takes bravado to invent something new with rice, and this dish fully earns Han’s favorite description: it’s indisputably a Little Mad. (Dishes $18-$45.) ♦