Kwang Uh's eyes register a small degree of consternation when I suggest that his restaurant, Baroo, might be getting a rush of customers due to a positive LA Times review. Considering he usually radiates tranquility and composure, this is an unexpected, almost extreme reaction. "Oh, I hope not," he says in careful English, and smiles with uncertainty. "I hope not. This is a very small place." He refills a small bowl of individually-wrapped crackers and sweets on the counter. With only seven dishes and a selection of pickles, the menu at Baroo is small. A couple of dishes feel Italian, such as an oxtail ragu and celeriac pasta.
Uh was born and raised in South Korea, but only a couple of things really feel Korean — the bibim (or mixed) salad and kimchi fried rice. And upon closer inspection of the ingredients, they begin to feel steadily less inspired by the cuisine of his homeland. Long-grain basmati rice is an unlikely base for the kimchi fried rice. And gremolata, a chopped herb topping more commonly associated with Milanese osso buco than anything from Seoul. It's hard to put this food in any kind of context, but they all share one thing in common: nearly everything relies on fermentation.
I'm looking over the chalkboard menu written on the wall while Uh stands patiently behind the counter and tends to a Macbook that's pumping out whatever music he's feeling at the moment: sometimes it's classic rock; sometimes it's Pantera. Or sometimes it's the MAD Symposium, a nod to René Redzepi and Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant where Uh interned for three months. He's dressed, as usual, in a dark blue t-shirt, a long, brown apron, a wooden mala bracelet (Tibetan prayer beads), and brown clogs. He's got a pair of dark-framed glasses that match a modest goatee, and his hair looks like he sets a pair of clippers on "3" and runs them over his head every couple of weeks. His resting face is one of earnest bemusement, not dissimilar to a Buddha statue.
When the restaurant gets mobbed, Uh and Kim are physically unable to prepare the food quickly enough.
"Let me clarify," he soon says. "I am grateful for customers. But we cannot handle too many people." Uh's reticence is not a lack of business acumen; when the restaurant gets mobbed, he and his business partner Matthew Kim are physically unable to prepare the food quickly enough. The two met while attending university in Seoul, where they made a pact when Uh was a freshman that they would, someday, open a restaurant together. Uh has studied under some culinary heavyweights in his life, including stints at Daniel in New York City and under Lars Williams in the test kitchen at Noma ("The main thing I learned there?" Uh says, "Perspective. Point of view.") When Kim moved to L.A. and began working on the business side in a few Koreatown restaurants, Uh thought it natural to follow him to California. "To open a restaurant in Korea is very easy," Uh explains. They wanted to "open a restaurant not in Korea but in a big world."
It was more of a personal challenge, as opposed to a conventional business venture. Money was tight, necessitating a search for a cheap space; operating within of the conventional parameters of the L.A. business scene, i.e. self-promotion, branding, and profits, were the furthest things from their mind. "This was never the point. This is just... an experiment. It's not about making money." Besides, Uh explains, hiring more staff would entail Baroo having to raise its prices. "Our ingredients are expensive; in line with fine dining. The food cost for most casual restaurants is 20-25%. Ours is closer to 40%." Keeping the food affordable is important to Uh — the dishes range from $9 to $15, a tiny amount compared to what some other organic restaurants are charging. For example, at Washington D.C.'s Nora, America's first certified organic restaurant, entrée prices hang out in the $38 to $42 range.
How, then, with high food cost and low prices, does Baroo make ends meet? A good deal on the rent certainly helps: the restaurant is nestled into a neglected plaza on the southwest corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Wilton Avenue, where East Hollywood meets the 101 Freeway. It is, frankly, an awful place to open a restaurant in L.A. The place has no signage, and is wedged between a still-in-construction 7-11 and Flor's Hair Studio. Traffic becomes unbearable on Santa Monica between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., which are prime dinner hours. The parking situation is dicey: the small lot fills quickly and has huge potholes that are temporarily covered with large sheets of ¾" plywood. And the last time I visited Baroo, a small sign was posted on the door announcing the restaurant's closure for four days — over a weekend, their busiest time — for "an inspiration trip." Baroo is actively, almost aggressively, indifferent to making money.
Diners come in droves, however, especially on the weekends. I've spoken to at least a dozen people who have eaten there, and every single person has loved it. There are a handful of negative reviews on Yelp, but those all seem involve frustration with wait time when Baroo is busy. This is in spite of the fact that the food is not approachable, in a conventional sense. There are ten, fifteen, or even more components to every dish, with half of the plates containing ingredients that the average diner has never even heard of, much less eaten.
The gim, for example — a hearty, oceanic-tasting mix of seaweed, grains, and pickles — contains the following: Job's tears, kamut and farro grains with amaju, an assorted seaweed compote with shiitake, tofu, and spirulina nasturtium; nori chip, mixed berries, wasabi daikon, and lime onion jalapeño pickle. Eat through the menu at Baroo, which is easy to do, and you'll find yourself tasting things like celery ash, krout powder, pickled mustard seeds, and passion fruit powder.
Uh is gently, almost indifferently, blazing a culinary trail into unexplored territory.
This ambition and complexity attracts food critics, too, and they effuse praise, even if they aren't quite sure what to make of what Baroo is doing. Besha Rodell commended it as a "tiny oddity" somewhere near the intersection of Korean food and health food. Jonathan Gold called it "a taste of the future" — true, even if that phrase conjures images of meal pellets spat from 24th century food synthesizers. The fact is, Uh is gently, almost indifferently, blazing a culinary trail into unexplored territory. His approach is very punk rock: stripped-down, forward-thinking, and firmly outside the PR machinery in which most Los Angeles restaurants are forced to operate.
But even if he's in Los Angeles by chance, the foundations of what he's doing are not in a vacuum because Uh is, at the end of the day, a classically trained chef. And Baroo, intentionally or not, is taking up the mantle of California cuisine — sparked in restaurants like Alice Waters' Chez Panisse and Daniel Patterson's Babette — and giving it a Korean twist in smaller, more casual setting.
"California cuisine," of course, has many meanings. There's nothing more Californian than, for example, sesame-crusted ahi with cucumber and wasabi crème fraîche. But there's also nothing more Californian than a Double-Double burger from In-N-Out. Or a fish taco, or avocado toast — California Cuisine is an amalgamation of styles borrowed from different cultures, much like America itself. We've seen a Korean take on that mixing of cultures before, of course, when Roy Choi's Kogi food truck conquered L.A. with a fusion of Mexican and Korean cuisines. When people talk about what it means to eat "Californian," however, they typically have a few things in mind: local, organic ingredients that aren't not too heavily cooked, with a sharp focus on vegetables, fruit, and other produce.
The "fusion" element of Baroo's menu can't be missed but, for Uh, the "local" aspect is a bigger deal. It doesn't get much more local than Baroo, where Uh grows and cultivates many of the restaurant's ingredients right there, on site. Rather than sitting on a lush farm, Baroo sits 200 feet from a bikini bar called "Gold Diggers Entertainment." Instead, Uh is a fermentation fanatic, and he breeds his microorganisms day and night. So he conjures Gluconacetobacter xylinus and Aspergillus oryzae, the essential components and catalysts of kombucha and koji, using both childhood memories of homemade kimchi as well as self-proclaimed "fermentation revivalist" Sandor Katz as his spiritual guides.
Baroo is a small space, and every surface is stacked with a vat of some kind of bubbling or growing specimen.
Baroo is a small space, and every surface is stacked with a vat of some kind of bubbling or growing specimen — huge plastic tubs of kombucha covered in paper towel or cellophane, with the respective flavors scrawled on masking tape: elderflower, lemon verbena, raspberry, tepache, and rose. Or the jars of pickled vegetables and fruit with names and dates written on them: "dill grape 9/22," "fermented dried cherry 8/10," "black garlic 8/14." Cabbage, beets, oranges that look like little faces pressed up against the sides of wide-mouth Ball and Yorkshire canning jars. It feels almost museum like: very anatomical; very biology class. (These items are all officially, according to Uh, not for consumption and strictly for display purposes.)
"This is the noorook," Uh says, taking me into the kitchen and showing me clumps of a dark reddish grain. Noorook is the same thing as koji, Uh explains, fermented grain that is the basis of many essentials of East Asian cuisine: miso, for example, as well as soy sauce and sake. "This is the koji," he says, presenting a container of bright pink liquid. "I've mixed it with beet and cream."
He lets me taste the liquid independently: it has a sweet creaminess, as I would expect, but there's another dimension to that deepens the flavor immensely. It's earthy, almost mushroomy: what most people in the food world would describe as umami. He pours some in a saucepan and throws in some oil, pumpkin seeds, and fermented soybean essence. He then produces an enormous container of a three-grain mixture: Job's tears, farro, and kamut. He tosses in a handful of that and sprinkles on some pink sea salt. The cooking takes maybe a minute — 90 seconds, tops — and then he's plating it.
The noorook tastes, like everything at Baroo, fresh and delicious. The interplay between the different grains, the beets, and the noorook gives you a sense — and this might sound ridiculous — of being one with the earth. The smooth sweetness of the beets contrasted with the savory coarseness of the grain, highlighted with the acidic pickled onion and almost dirt-like flavor of the koji creates a perfectly balanced dish. While having almost nothing green about it, it simply tastes like nature. It's a dish that appeals to sense memory as much to the taste buds; reminiscent of the smell of wet leaves and rain on pavement.
Fermentation is alive, he explains, and it must be treated as such. Uh attributes his obsessiveness partially to the nature of being a chef, but also to his DNA. Korean cuisine relies on fermentation as much, or perhaps more, than any other cuisine on earth: kimchi is the most obvious example, but there are also dozens of jang (condiments) and banchan (side dishes) that rely on fermentation for flavor and preservation. "I was raised in a family that grew kimchi and different kinds of jang at home," he explains. What really interests Uh in fermentation, though, is a bit more personal and theoretical. Fermenting ingredients, he believes, really are like people. "As they mature, they deepen, like people; too much aging can result in rotten fermentation though, just like people."
18 hour days are typical, and he frequently doesn't leave the restaurant at all after Baroo closes.
The name of the restaurant, Baroo, is a play on "baroo-gong-yang," which is the traditional meal at a Buddhist temple. "Baroo" is the bowl of a Buddhist monk, and "gong yang" essentially means temple worship. Uh says he wanted to be a monk in his early twenties. Like most chefs, he works long days and is a bit of an obsessive, though when I ask him exactly how much he works per day, he hesitates. Finally, it comes out: 18 hour days are typical, and he frequently doesn't leave the restaurant at all after Baroo closes. He pats the Master Chef freezer behind the counter, which he has converted to a fermentation chamber. "I sometimes have to check the temperature and humidity in the middle of the night to make sure everything is right," he says. "So, sometimes I have to sleep here."
He moved from Korea to Los Angeles about five months ago — at precisely the same time he and his partner, Kim, opened Baroo. There has been no acclimatization period, and almost no down time. He describes himself as an amateur: "open, somewhat foolishly, with nothing to lose." He likes to keep it small, under his control, and more or less off-the-grid, as far as restaurants go. He cooks every dish, every day, for every customer who walks through the door.
If Baroo were located two miles east in Silver Lake, or two miles west in West Hollywood, it would be mobbed day and night. Organic, local, pseudo-Korean-Californian fusion cuisine? With five flavors of homemade kombucha? Game over. Again, Uh doesn't seem to care; in fact, he prefers it this way. "This is an experiment," he says "In the future, in my dream, I want to try something like a co-op. They have co-op grocery stores, and I want to have... like a co-op restaurant." Uh keeps reiterating that Baroo is less a restaurant and more an "experiment." And he repeats that point more frequently the more I talk to him. "This is not a restaurant," he says confidently. He explains that he and Kim have reached a break-even situation as far as money is concerned, and they're satisfied with that. Uh and Kim's dream was to open a place together. Now that they have, the dream is fulfilled and everything else is just frosting on the cake.
Uh then reveals: he never planned to have Baroo open for more than a year. And since it opened in August, that leaves only about seven more months of intended operation. I ask him if he really plans on shutting Baroo down in seven more months, and he says he's not sure. Plans change, of course, but that was always the plan. "This is very hard work," he sighs.
In the meantime, Uh keeps thinking, and innovating. He's playing with the flavor of gojuchang, a classic Korean red pepper paste. He'd like to make it a little sweeter, a little tangier. He makes a brioche with some of the fermented black garlic he's keeping on the shelf. He's trying to make something that bridges XO sauce and doubanjiang bean paste using koji natto. He asks me what I think about a fermented noodle: would that taste good? Something like a sourdough noodle, perhaps. I say yes, of course, that sounds absolutely amazing.
Baroo is located on 5706 Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood. Hours run 12 to 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday, open evenings only on Sunday. Closed Mondays.
Lucas Peterson is a James Beard-nominated writer and on-camera host. He is the new Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times travel section. His video series for Eater.com, "Dining on a Dime," explores inexpensive food in U.S. cities. He is a regular contributor to Lucky Peach and Eater LA, and has written for Food Republic, LA Weekly, and Flaunt Magazine.
Photographs: Wonho Frank Lee
Editors: Meghan McCarron and Matthew Kang