Los Angeles transplant Thomas Kim has energized Midtown Global Market by giving Midwest staples a cheeky Korean glance. We get lost in decadent burgers and a carnitas cocktail as we tumble down The Rabbit Hole.
Thomas Kim stands at the grill painting the flesh of a whole mackerel in a bright red glaze. It’s made from gochujang—a pungent chili-soy condiment that’s found all over Korean cuisine. The fish hits the fire with a sweet sizzle. He applies a torch to the topside. The skin curls as it gets crispy.
He plates the mackerel over a potato croquette with arugula and pickled onions. The whole presentation seems Mediterranean at heart. Only background flavors of soy and sesame would have you guess there’s a Korean angle in play.
“We’re not traditional Korean,” says Kim. “My mom could come here and wouldn’t understand the whole menu. But there are elements of everything we serve that will be traditional. We’re trying to present food from multiple perspectives.”
About two years ago, Kim and now wife Kat Melgaard opened The Left Handed Cook, one stall down from Sonora Grill in Midtown Global Market. At the time, his menus contained a certain measure of abandon. My first meal there was a pig’s ear and yuzu sandwich that left me thinking, What is this guy trying to prove?
Lured in part by the opportunity of a liquor license, they transformed the stand-alone restaurant space at the market’s entrance. Opened last November, The Rabbit Hole is a cozy, low-lit warren. The décor is familiar and comforting, just like the food, with dashes of whimsy here and there. The restaurant as a whole is an excellent study in when to play it safe and when to go off the rails.
The move to sit-down dining changed Kim’s focus from surprise to sustainability. “The Left Handed Cook was more freewheeling,” says Kim. “Whatever we felt like cooking, we’d cook. If there was something that struck my fancy, regardless of pricing, we’d bring it in just so we could play with it. Now we’re making sure consistency is much more of a factor than just being something cool. It forced my hand to become more of an adult.”
The food is perfectly grown-up. Consider his elegant roasted poussin or the short rib and mashed potatoes. They may be called Tong Dak and Kalbi Jjim but taste conventional as casserole—just tweaked with a little something surprising.
“We started out with the idea that 60% of the menu would be immediately familiar,” he explains, “and the flavor profiles, as we progressed, would begin to swing the other way.” So far he hasn’t had to cajole anyone out of their comfort zone. “People have been very willing to jump on board and try adventurous things,” he says. “And the spice levels are not that crazy. More often than not, people ask to get things spicier.”
It’s a restaurant to suit all tastes. Diners can branch out with bo ssam and banchan or stay put with wings and burgers. And those burgers aren’t perfunctory—they’re a priority. Short rib, brisket, and eye round from Niman Ranch are house-ground and topped with all kinds of goodness between Salty Tart buns.
The beer list is one place they were ready to abandon any thoughts of tradition. “Korean beer is basically like drinking watered down Coors Light,” laughs Kim, “I think they just need something to wash down soju. One of the most underrated aspects of our restaurant is the beer menu. Not only is there a beer for every type of beer drinker, but they all fit with the food that we serve. Bree has done a crazy thing. It’s seamless.”
He refers to Bree Ann Rapp, general manager and beer list curator. Before joining The Rabbit Hole, she’d worked at Pracna on Main, taught cooking classes at Kitchen In The Market, and worked at Artisanal Imports corralling European beers with Lanny Hoff.
“We wanted to start with good food beers, like Matilda, Sorachi Ace, and Tripel Karmeliet,” Rapp explains. “We just tried them all with the food. Some of the most popular beers don’t pair well. That’s why we don’t have a lot of dark beers, even though it’s winter.”
Rapp challenges the old school notion that hoppy beers clash with spice. “I’m excited to have Bell’s Hopslam on right now,” she says. “It’s fabulous every year. Sometimes I think it’s good to have kind of an offensive/defensive thing going on where it plays off the food.” She proves that theory in Killer Pairing #1, where two sets of spice-filled wings make wonderful foils for two hop-forward brews.
“And I think it’s a misconception that Korean food is spicy,” says Rapp. “It’s spice filled, very boisterous and flavorful, but people see red and think spice. It has spice character, but it’s not always hot.”
One could call their cocktail list boisterous, or mildly insane depending on their point of view. “I’ve never been a traditional bartender,” says Kim. “That’s the great thing about having someone like Bree, whose palate I trust, to let me go crazy and she can rein me in. Our cocktail approach is basically I shouldn’t like this, but I do.” To wit: your drink might include dashi (fish stock) or tequila washed through with carnitas fat.
The Rabbit Hole is perfectly accessible for cocktail hour. It’s a no-brainer for beer and pub grub. It could make for a cozy date night as easily as a grand family get-together. It’s remarkable in its flexibility—a testament to good planning and knowing one’s audience.
“We definitely approached it from the mindset of earning the diner’s trust before we started to do anything crazy,” says Kim. “I don’t forget the fact that we’re in the Midwest and there’s a specific culture of dining. I didn’t want to say ‘Hey, we’re the cool new kids on the block, we’re going to bring out some pan-roasted crickets.’”
“Worms were initially on the menu,” Rapp interjects.
“Yeah,” Kim smiles, “Silk worm larvae. I removed those before we got to the final menu. We can’t do that yet. But at some point we will.”
Killer Pairing #1
Back in issue 8 of The Growler, we set out to pair chicken wings with beer. Had The Rabbit Hole been open back then, these wings would have soared to the top of the Asian-inspired category. They sport a brilliant, crispy exterior from a rice flour coating and are marinated for fall-off-the-bone tenderness.
The scallion/ginger are a classic flavor and Two Hearted is a pairing that Rapp didn’t think would initially work. But it does—washing the palate clean rather than clashing with the ginger. The habanero/gochujang aren’t on the menu but ask for them anyways. A Ballast Point Pale offers a complementary citrus flavor and helps dull the mild heat.
Killer Pairing #2
Grilled mackerel and soy potato croquette with dressed arugula, pickled onion + Brooklyn Sorachi Ace
The preparation is downright stunning, almost too good to eat. But that’s ridiculous because the only thing better than the way it looks is how it tastes. Mackerel is a substantial fish and Kim’s deftly walks the tightrope between firm and yielding. The glaze gives a touch of crunch to the undercarriage, while the salad on top adds a clean pepper/vinegar bite to cut through the oily fish.
The Sorachi Ace, with its distinct lemon hop character, is the squeeze of citrus this fish deserves. It’s powerful enough to pierce the oil and vinegar of the dish, yet subtle enough not to overwhelm or throw it out of balance. A remarkable pairing.