Steven Han has long wanted to do a high-end Korean restaurant—he was just concerned people wouldn’t find it as accessible as the sushi, ramen, and yakitori at his three Japanese restaurants, Momiji, Kushibar, and Umi Sake House.
Until he was driving his kids to ski lessons one day. On the radio, Han heard Trader Joe’s advertising a special on frozen pajeon, a scallion pancake.
If Korean food was mainstream enough for Trader Joe’s, it was surely appropriate for Han: “I looked over at my wife and was like, ‘What the hell?’ I think I can do Korean food now.”
On Saturday, April 4, Han’s Korean steak house, Girin, opens at the foot of CenturyLink field in a corner address (501 Stadium Place South) in the brand new Stadium Place complex. The kitchen might do a limited menu, based on how things come together this week, but doors will open at 4, just in time for the evening's Sounders game.
Girin is a rather fantastic location for a pregame drink and plate of gochujang wings, but it's hardly sporty.
Heave open the massive cedar-planked doors and the exterior’s blandness gives way to a full-on indoor garden, complete with rockery, a small bubbling pond, and walls designed to look like the exterior of a traditional Korean home. This level of design should be familiar to anyone who’s been to Momiji, Han’s Japanese restaurant on Capitol Hill. Most of the same artisans returned to put this arresting space together.
The food at Girin will be similarly polished. Han enlisted Brandon Kirksey as executive chef, seemingly a strange move since, as Kirksey puts it, “I cooked Italian forever.” But Han wanted a chef who wasn’t steeped in Korean traditions: “If you’re a Korean guy, used to grandma’s cooking, you’re just going to do that all day.”
Kirksey was head chef at Ethan Stowell's Tavolàta and Rione XIII before leaving Seattle to cook at San Francisco’s acclaimed Flour and Water. When one of Han’s partners, a friend of Kirksey’s from their days working at neighboring Tavolàta and Kushibar, floated the idea of Girin, the chef had some initial hesitations. One of them being that he had never cooked Korean. But Han’s plans for in-house butchery helped win him over, and Kirksey kicked off his culinary immersion with two weeks of nonstop eating (and drinking) in Korea.
The focal point of Kirksey’s menu is a lineup of ssam plates—various cuts of beef (or pork or fish or vegetables) with leafy greens and vegetables which change seasonally and are meant for wrapping the proteins. Small dishes like spicy grilled squid or gaeran jim (egg custard) can function as starters or shareable snacks.
While dishes are Kirksey’s creation, Han says flavor profiles are authentically, legitimately Korean. “We’re not doing fusion.” The buckwheat noodles are perhaps only hint of the chef’s Italocentric background: He makes them himself, in a bit of a shout-out to his former boss Ethan Stowell. “I think he’d be upset if he saw me buying dried noodles,” says Kirksey.
For a restaurant with a meat locker containing street-facing windows—giving passersby a view of various hanging carcasses—Girin is decently friendly to vegetarians and vegans.
That entrance garden isn’t the only large-scale design flourish here. Turn right and the main dining room wraps around a raised room-within-a-room designed to look like a Korean-style house. Turn left and you’re in Girin’s bar, where the menu swings smaller and snackish and Korean liquor makgeolli will flow freely.
And yes, there are a few TVs in the bar. It’s a must when your establishment is this proximate to the stadiums, but they don’t affect the serenity of the high-end dining happening on the other side of the garden. It's an uncommon combination, but I'm excited to see it play out.
Keep an eye on the Girin website for menus and more details.