There is beauty in change, according to Katianna and John Hong of Arts District Korean American darling Yangban. It has been 18 months since the restaurant first opened around the corner from Bestia, and in that time the Hongs have come to embrace a kind of in-flux existence, turning their deeply personal restaurant from a casual deli-to-dinner spot to a restaurant with a sharply curated tasting menu option, and now this newest version: a darker, artful dinnertime hangout with a refreshed focus on the plate.
Both fine dining veterans with Northern California pedigrees (at spots like Charter Oak and the Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena), the Hongs had hoped to offer something much more casual with the first iteration of their LA restaurant, then named Yangban Society. Now, they say they’re embracing who they are entirely, pulling from their personal lives as Korean Americans, their hometowns and travels, and, yes, from their time spent in three Michelin-starred kitchens. “Yangban is so autobiographical,” says Katianna. “We really don’t have a singular reference point for it. It’s not like ‘Hey, we’re cooking Roman food, so let’s just study that.’ It has taken time for us, and will take time. But it’s happening in a way that feels natural.”
Just last month, the pair closed their Arts District restaurant for a few weeks to make way for Yangban 2.0. There are now large booths for groups, an almost entirely new menu that includes larger mains (served on all-new plateware), and dark walls that act as a neutral background to a rotating collection of art from friends and famous tradespeople around the world. “We don’t really think of it as a whole new plan,” says Katianna. “Because the food and our ideation process and the importance of it all...these things we’re focused on trying to relay, they’re all still the same. We’re just doing it through a different lens.”
Outsider Interior Design worked up the new look for the physical space, and the Hongs have brought in artwork from Tomas Osinski and Brian Zamora, Jisun Kim, and other Korean artists. On the drink front, the couple pulled in Dave Purcell (Beverage director for Winston House and the Waterfront Venice, NoMad, Melrose Umbrella Co.) and sommelier Sam Rethmeier to round out the beverage selections. “We’re becoming more well-rounded with our service [and] our beverages so we can help to guide this experience to more of a complete thought,” John says.
While the earliest days of Yangban were a buzzy mix of Korean, Korean American, and Jewish influences all pressed through the sieve of living in Los Angeles, the newest menu is structured, more overtly Korean, and comes with flashes of technique not seen before. A gochujang-braised black cod and reimagined short rib dish nod to the menus of Koreatown, but there’s also the matzo ball mandu, the Hongs’ playful seasonal banchan, and that LA starter staple — a take on a caesar salad. Some dishes and flavors may be familiar to Yangban regulars but many are brand new, part of the evolving nature of the chefs as people and the restaurant as both an idea and a practical space where people can come to eat. “We’re making things more in our style of cooking,” says John. “We’ve termed it Korean Americana.”
“Because we had time to start basic and strip everything away we’re now able to build on those staples,” says Katianna, referencing the decision to go so casual at first. “While there are some dishes that you’ll recognize ingredients from, everything has really evolved. We’re asking ourselves: What is modern fine dining to us?”
John sees even more significant questions in the reopening, slated for September 15. “The way this restaurant has gone, how we’ve evolved and grown, it really does mirror the struggle with identity,” he says. “You think you’ve figured yourself out, and you realize there’s so much more to discover.”
Yangban reopens for dinner service on Friday, September 15 at 712 S. Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90021, with hours from Wednesday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.