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A week after my meal at Baroo, a tiny spot in a slightly dingy strip mall in L.A., I’m still trying to make sense of the place. It’s not quite a restaurant, though it serves a remarkable parade of dishes like kimchi fried rice with pineapple white kimchi, pesto and a soft sous-vide egg, and noorook, or grains in a roasted koji beet cream. And it’s not quite a fermentation laboratory, though shelves along the back wall are lined with jars of vegetables, fruits, grains and even coffee beans in various states of pickle (see the recipe for pickled watermelon rind). Rather, it feels like an experiment: an experiment in what a restaurant in L.A. can be, and, even more so, what its owners and only two full-time employees, Kwang Uh and Matthew Kim, are capable of.
It’s an experiment that was initially planned to run for only a year, when the pair opened last September. It was also meant to be somewhat under the radar, but close to a year and several positive reviews later, it is evolving into a dining destination.
When I ask Uh how he defines the project, he says, “I don’t usually describe it.” Rather, he relates the question to asking a Zen Buddhist master what chopsticks are, saying, “In English, it’s chopsticks; in Korean, it’s chokara; in Japanese, there’s another word. It means this kind of essence . . . but there are many describable languages. The right answer is something like that.” It’s a response that, like my meal, I am still mulling over.
A current of philosophy seems to pulse through the restaurant, from the way Uh relates the five elements of Taoism to the construction of one of his dishes to the name of the restaurant, which is the term for the bowl or set of bowls that Buddhist monks eat from, one of the few possessions they are allowed to own. The name is fitting. Uh considered becoming a monk and now ascribes to an approach to life that isn’t ascetic, but is perhaps, in its own way, still somewhat monastic. He’s been known to stay at the restaurant all night to keep an eye on his ferments, which one could read as peculiar or as an act of devotion.
Returning to our conversation about explaining the restaurant, he says, “There are no words,” but if forced to define it, he calls it an “outer boundary” restaurant where “I still don’t know what I’m doing. It’s like peeling the onion, one layer by one layer; I’m trying to find what I want to do in the future. This is just one [part] of the process.”
Uh is young, in his early 30s, but he could pass for even younger. And it feels like this experiment is a way to find his purpose in life, not just the kitchen. Unlike many other artists who work in private studios or young writers who toil away on laptops anonymously in coffee shops, his art is placed on a table several days a week for guests to see and taste. The situation feels intimate and vulnerable, like he is exposing himself and his process through his food.
He and Kim hatched the plan to open a restaurant together when they were in college in Seoul more than a decade ago. When they went to actually realize that, they weren’t looking for attention. They chose a space in a strip mall that sits between a few neighborhoods, a nameless section of Santa Monica Boulevard between Hollywood and Little Armenia, not too far from Koreatown. There’s no sign for the restaurant; you have to know what you’re looking for to get there.
The inexpensive rent was also a draw for them. At $2 a square foot, it has allowed Kim and Uh to, for the most part, be open when they want to be. Meaning the hours at Baroo aren’t quite set in stone. The two recently closed up the restaurant for six weeks to travel around east Asia for inspiration, something that is nearly impossible for most restaurants in the United States to do.
The shelter of affordable rent and a no-name address has allowed them a culinary freedom to combine flavors that at first blush don’t make sense together. Raspberries are paired with nasturtium and seaweed compote in a grain dish; pesto saddles up to pineapple kimchi in the kimchi fried rice; a faux oxtail ragù (that is better than most meat renditions) tossed with fresh pasta is topped with tendon puff and kraut powder. The results are remarkable and boundary pushing.
When I ask Uh if he will hold to his one-year plan, he says he doesn’t know anymore. There’s an ephemerality at Baroo. As with all experiments, it feels like one day, it could simply pack up, leaving no trace behind.