Jim Leff

Jim Leff

A weeklong electronic journal.
March 27 2000 9:00 PM

Jim Leff

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It wasn't until mid-chew of Maria's luxuriously tender, mega-toothsome galbi-jim that a lump formed in my throat. I'm not referring to an errant shred of relentlessly marinated Korean beef rib. This was a lump Heimlich himself couldn't maneuver; an emotional node of sheer despair. Bo, one of the greatest New York City restaurants, would, as of Sunday, be no mo'.

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I'd arrived for this Last Supper with a heavy heart, but attacked my meal with vigor, impelled by a solemn determination to commit to memory every magical bite. The fried mung bean pancakes were profoundly crisp and so golden they actually shimmered. The kimchi hid infinite layers of complexity beneath its perfectly balanced flavor façade of sour heat and fresh vegetable snap. Sliced eggplant was unbelievably pure and expressive, and spring chicken with ginseng and sticky rice in soup was almost entirely unsalted, allowing the nectarous broth to sing its delicate bel canto without distraction.

It wasn't just the food that was singing; Maria had been playing Carmen over and over throughout this, her final week of operation. While I raptly ate my dinner, growing ever more ecstatic yet ever more doleful, the opera built toward its climax. Then, precisely as I bit into the aforementioned sacramental morsel of galbi-jim—re-entering the rarified blissful realms those marinated beef ribs had so often revealed to me—the soprano screeched a high undulating wail of misery and despair. I found myself so worked up by it all that, in spite of my disdain for opera, I couldn't help but get choked up.

Maria (a k a Hoon Mee Cho) had worked as pastry chef at the ritzy Sign of the Dove but quit to establish a place of her own where she could return to her Korean roots. Her fare at this elegant but modest Queens storefront was so personal and so deep that it completely transcended any notion of Korean restaurant food. This feat was accomplished without the use of clever fusion-y elements or fancified ingredients (nor were there pastries; an exquisitely selected few bites of sliced fruit was the only dessert ever offered). No dishes were served that couldn't be found in hundreds of other Korean eateries, but Maria's versions tasted like a completely different cuisine. Bo wasn't a Korean restaurant. Or, perhaps, it was the only Korean restaurant.

Nonetheless, the place never caught on, though it wasn't for lack of effort by Maria, her intensely loyal cadre of fans, and New York's food writers, whose rave reviews plastered Bo's walls and windows. Sometimes when I'd drop by, Maria would tell me I was her first customer in days. It was heartbreaking, but, amazingly, she never slackened. On the contrary: As the situation grew more and more desperate (the waitress, unable to live on 15 percent of nothing, went back to Korea months ago, leaving Maria no choice but to wait and bus tables herself), she responded by determinedly making everything even better. Nearly every meal I'd eaten at Bo was superior to the preceding one. She was daring the world to eat elsewhere; creating food that might, via the sheer magnetic pull of its almost diabolical goodness, lure customers off the streets. Yet only a trickle of business was ever conjured up.

A year ago, Maria spoke about closing shop, so drastic measures were called for. I mobilized the New York chowhound community via my Web site, and local hounds took up the rallying cry, renting cars for pilgrimages to Bo and posting rapturous post-meal paeans on our message boards (this one, for example). But while this brought some relief, once-per-month regulars cannot sustain a restaurant.

Everyone tried to drum into Maria the recognition that Bo—with its impossibly obscure address—never had a fighting chance but that fame and fortune awaited her across the river, in Manhattan, if only she could find investors. The truism used to be that hard work brought sure success in America, and perhaps that's still true today … but only if you also have a good location. And polished marketing skills. And a few million bucks of seed money. In the meantime, Maria's heading back to Korea, though she says she hopes to return.

After dinner, Maria walked me to the door—as she did with all her dejected customers this weekend. She seemed relieved that her Sisyphean struggle was finally over. I, however, was pretty bummed out. Heading back to the chowmobile, I felt like Charlie Brown, grimacing over his lost kite. And then I remembered that Charlie Brown's gone forever, too.

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