Ssal, a casual, Korean-inspired restaurant from a married couple with considerable industry experience, opens this month at 2226 Polk Street (in the former Troy Greek space). “I saw so many restaurants inspired by Korean food in NYC,” says Hyunyoung Bae, who moved from Seoul to New York, attending the CIA before working at Gramercy Tavern. But in San Francisco, not so much.
Hyunyoung encouraged her husband, chef Junsoo Bae, to open a restaurant with her to change that — and to make a new start for themselves. “I’m not fully confident of opening a restaurant,” says Junsoo. Also a Korean-born CIA alum and a former Gramercy Tavern sous chef, Junsoo was fired from the restaurant in 2017 for alleged misconduct.
“As a young cook, I made a mistake,” Junsoo tells Eater SF. Now, the couple wants to move forward. “[Hyunyoung] said, she trusts my talent, we can prove ourselves to make things better for the community.”
Hyunyoung and Junsoo Bae moved to Napa in 2017; There, Hyunyoung worked as a server at the French Laundry, and Junsoo worked as a line cook at the Restaurant at Meadowood. They were married last year.
But Junsoo quit his job at Meadowood after an Eater NY article about Gramercy Tavern’s management revealed his firing from Gramercy. At a holiday party in 2016, he allegedly groped a server from behind and inappropriately touched her neck. “I sincerely apologize for everything that happened,” Junsoo told Eater NY last year regarding the incident. “It was all my fault. I feel guilty about it, and I [went] through all this punishment. ...I hope that makes everyone who felt uncomfortable feel better.”
Junsoo and Hyunyoung financed their new business themselves with bank loans, and hope to open in the next few weeks. Four of five employees so far are also Gramercy Tavern alums: That’s a testament to Junsoo’s positive overall reputation among many at the restaurant, the couple says.
Ssal’s ambition is to add to San Francisco’s relatively limited Korean food scene with a menu of small plates like scallion pancakes, silken tofu with sea urchin and smoked trout roe, and burdock japchae. Dishes like steamed rice with white mushrooms will be cooked to order in traditional cast iron pots, and large plates include barbecue items like braised beef short ribs and ribeye, plus smoked Liberty farm duck ssam. To drink, Ssal will stock beer, wine, and soju.
The menu isn’t strictly traditional, says Hyunyoung. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, this is not Korean food.’” For inspiration, the couple looks to restaurants like Mister Jiu’s and Liholiho Yacht club — pedigreed establishments that take cues from Californian cuisine as much as Chinese and Hawaiian traditions, respectively.
Ssal will seat 46 diners at about 15 tables, with reservations online soon through Resy. For the moment, the restaurant’s goals are modest, and Hyunyoung and Junsoo are nervous, given the potential for negative press. But they think opening the restaurant is their best option.
Cooking is “the single thing I can do,“ says Junsoo. “It’s something I can do that the community can appreciate.”
Ssal Menu by on Scribd
Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified the restaurant Ssal is replacing. It is Troy Greek, not Troya Restaurant.