When Kiyong “Ki” Kim opened his 20-seat restaurant, Kinn, in Koreatown late in 2021, he funneled all the ideas and ambitions that had been percolating in his brain for years into a 10-item menu of starters and entrees.
Kim had cooked in the kitchens of the most acclaimed modern Korean dining destinations in the United States — tasting-menu paragons Atomix and Jungsik in New York; cerebral, ultra-luxe Benu (where Corey Lee also interlaces nods to Chinese cuisines) in San Francisco — and he aimed to bring the interpretive freedom of such pacesetters to his modestly scaled business.
Among Kinn’s first inventive wave of dishes were rosy kerchiefs of brisket bathed in horseradish-tinged soy sauce and blanketed with bell pepper slices; a riff on a Korean-style corndog made of prosciutto and Dungeness crab and squiggled with house-made ketchup; and tiny turnips punctuated with batons of radish kimchi and dressing that evoked the flavors of gaejang (soy-marinated raw crab).
The earliest customers didn’t always connect with what was being presented.
“People were confused about why we were doing such untraditional things and still calling ourselves a Korean restaurant,” Kim said recently.
To eliminate guesswork altogether, he and business partner Dustin Donghyuk Lee made a fast, firm decision: The restaurant switched from a la carte to a seasonal tasting menu, beginning with five courses for $72. Freed from the big choices, diners began to connect with the individuality of Kim’s cooking, and he started gaining his audience.
Promising right from the start, Kinn needed some time and space for the chef to find his grounding. A year and a half in, as his menus have grown surer in conception and execution, Kim is emerging as one of the freshest culinary voices in Los Angeles.
Raised in Korea before his family immigrated to the U.S., Kim moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2020. While orchestrating dosirak takeout pop-ups to stay afloat during the shutdowns, he settled in to understand the new home in which he’d be striving to express himself.
Koreatown — our nerve center with its layers of cultures and generations and dichotomies teeming in its three square miles — defies static characterization. But its finest Korean restaurants generally lean toward time-honored articulations of the cuisine. We’ll never tire of tabletop barbecue, in rooms both weathered and gleaming. We cherish cloudy, nourishing soups; feasts of banchan and raw crab at treasured Soban; and specialists that excel in soondubu, cold noodles and dumplings, bossam and galbi. In its gastropubs and kimbap bars, novelties may roll through in the form of truffle kimchi fried rice, cream cheese-anchovy rolls or bulgogi nachos. But the area isn’t yet known as an incubator for young Korean chefs with fine-dining backgrounds rendering their personal narratives on the plate.
Kim has been steadily clearing a path for himself. It helps that he came ready with a hard-to-resist signature dish, one he likely won’t ever pull from rotation, that conveys his essence as a chef in a few bites. “Crispy octopus with gochujang aioli,” the staff will say while setting it down. A simple description doesn’t do justice to the labor involved.
Its inspiration came from both nakji-bokkeum, a classic dish of spicy stir-fried octopus, and a standout braised octopus course at Jungsik that Kim helped make daily during his time at the restaurant and now takes in his own direction.
There’s technically no gochujang in Kim’s sauce. He and his small crew — chefs Joshua Suh, Zack Cornell and Daniel Chong — emulate the paste’s flavor by simmering octopus heads with chile flakes, scallions and onions in stock. It reduces from 10 liters down to a half-pint of an intense, nearly sentient substance that’s somewhere between liquid and solid. It turns a shimmery burnt orange folded into aioli; the chile registers more as a dusky, earthy flavor than as an element of heat. The team pipes the sauce across plates in squiggles and yolk-sized blobs. Its silken texture stands out sharply against wisps of octopus that have been boiled until tender, air-dried, and then deep-fried to crispness just before serving.
Heady, yes, and also plainly delicious. The octopus was a $20 supplement until recently. So many people opted in that Kim added it as a permanent sixth course, bumping the total price of dinners up to $95 per person.
Kinn has never been about the ornate, hours-long notion of a tasting menu. The meal unfolds at a synchronized clip — not rushed, but definitely not draggy — with most of the dishes assembled by the chefs behind the counter of what was a sushi bar in the space’s previous life cycle. Rather than a preset beverage pairing, there’s a concisely edited list of a dozen-plus wines, mostly Old World and nearly all of them available by the glass, and a Brooklyn brewer’s milky, savory-sweet makgeolli that vibes with the food.
At the restaurant’s inception, Kim followed a line of thinking often pursued by newly arrived chefs: He dipped into L.A.-themed signifiers. As a starter snack he would fashion tiny tacos filled with avocado and truffle or braised pork and kimchi; the shells were painstakingly formed from sheets of seaweed dehydrated and fried in-house. A crackery wafer, resembling a flour tortilla, might be topped with uni and trout roe and presented in a pizza box. Mulhwe, a soup of raw fish in chilled broth, was reengineered to evoke ceviche.
None of these creations fell flat per se, and engaged Angelenos are forever drawing creative influence from the city’s rich pluralism. In Kim’s case, it felt like he was flashing a decoder ring to fast-track membership into a club he wasn’t even sure he wanted to join. He didn’t need to perform belonging. He needed to rely on his own instincts and skills.
Particularly since the turn of the year, he’s been cooking more like he trusts himself and trusts his customers.
He hasn’t abandoned visual playfulness: The current menu starts with a dish called “Eat Your Kimchi.” The first two words are spelled on the plate in moss-green seaweed dressing. A hunk of gem lettuce smeared with the peppery, garlicky paste used to ferment kimchi and then blanketed with shaved Manchego completes the sentence. This opener makes me want to read on.
Asparagus and clams steamed in soju, a spin on a Korean street food, arrive hidden under a wafer imprinted with images of other bivalves. The salad barked with spice, but this course, with a trace amount of bacon fat to impart smoky warmth, whispered its astringent springtime flavors.
Kim is masterful with these kinds of dynamics. Next comes the octopus, with its crescendo of textures, and then rock cod arrives in a doenjang broth quietly rippling with umami.
As Kinn has come into itself, the restaurant is bringing to mind both the early days of Kato, where Jon Yao also found self-determination in a concise tasting-menu structure, and the exploratory spirit of Kwang Uh’s food at much-missed, hopefully returning Baroo.
With a Southern California convert’s epiphanies over the farmers markets, Kinn arguably leans even further into nimble seasonality than those two restaurants. He fills a small bowl of bibimbap, the evening’s last course before dessert, with blanched, roasted, raw and pureed vegetables that refresh the eyes before they reach the palate.
Kim mentioned in a phone conversation that in his menus the ingredients most emphasize the current moment, while also acknowledging the previous season (as in the wintry bit of bacon in the clam and asparagus dish) and what’s just ahead. That’s a concept straight from Japanese kaiseki philosophy; in theory and in practice it feels organic to Kim’s admirably work-in-progress style.
So it made perfect sense when my last spring meal at Kinn ended with summery bingsoo. A server drizzle blackberry syrup over a milky-sweet mound of snowy ice and it tasted of the future — of all the good things yet to come.
3905 W. 6th St, Los Angeles, (213) 291-0888, kinn.la
Prices: $95 six-course tasting menu
Details: Dinner 5:30-10:30 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. Wine, rice wine and beer. Valet and street parking.
Recommended dishes: No choices, but look out for the signature crispy octopus.