San Francisco is already home to several stunning Korean fine-dining restaurants, and now Suragan is the latest to join the scene with chef Jongmoon Choi bringing an ancient twist to the genre. Choi is pulling recipes from historical Korean cookbooks and places such as the Sanga Yorok, which dates to 1450 as a record of dishes made and served to the royal family during the Joseon dynasty of Korea, a time period considered to be when Korean cuisine flourished.
It’s a very personal project for Choi, who worked at San Francisco’s Marlena as a sous chef while working on the Suragan concept for the last five years. He learned about Korean royal cuisine at Kyung Hee University in Seoul before attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “I thought it would be meaningful and fun to compose a tasting menu based on the concept of ancient recipes,” Choi wrote via email. “The current concept of the restaurant is not to recreate the food from ancient cooking, but to be inspired.”
So the idea isn’t to make food strictly following the texts of Sanga Yorok or the Eumsik Dimibang cookbook from 1670; instead, Choi brings modern elements to those Korean food traditions by incorporating fine dining techniques he learned from a decade of translating cookbooks from El Bulli, Alinea, and French Laundry (to name a few) to learn more about modern cooking techniques and expand his knowledge. “I had no intention of doing Korean food under the name of tradition, which values age and experience,” Choi wrote. “Like El Bulli or Noma, we conceived a concept that solidifies the restaurant’s identity by using ingredients and technology from other countries when necessary.”
At Suragan, expect a 12-course tasting menu for $135 per person. For the current menu, diners may taste beetroot kimchi and gim bugak, or seaweed sheets fried until crisp; an egg noodle dish with turnip kimchi; a “cod skin broth” with poached black cod, broth, and a bellflower root foam; or a 48-hour braised beef short rib with ssamjang made from walnuts. The menu will shift every three months to cover different historical cooking texts through the 1700s. The drink menu will consist of “wines from all around the world,” as well as specialty Korean teas and sool, or craft alcoholic beverages from Korea, Suragan’s general manager Tony Lee, shares.
Suragan first debuted as a pop-up last spring inside Sushi Sato, as Tablehopper first reported, before landing in its new permanent location at 250 Hyde Street in the Tenderloin. The name Suragan has become a common one for casual restaurants in Korea, Choi shares, but it is one that he’s trying to reclaim. “Suragan was probably the most advanced modern kitchen in the Joseon Dynasty, and the king of the Joseon Dynasty was the first person to experience new food,” he explains. Now, Bay Area locals can try those same traditions again.