Williamsburg is a long way from Busan, the South Korean port city where restaurateur Chris K. Lim hails from. Lim, however, has expertly imported the spirit of South Korean drinking and dining culture with his new Korean fusion restaurant, East Hae, which opened February 13.
Lim is a seasoned entrepreneur with over 80 restaurants to his name, including the international poke chain, Poké Bar. Yet East Hae is not just another franchise: it’s a heart-filled collaboration between Lim and his partner and Poké Bar franchisee, Dr. Vadim Abramov, as well as a team of talented chefs.
Lim has known the restaurant business since he was 16, when he helped out at his parents’ 300-seat Korean barbecue restaurant in Busan. At the time, running his own restaurant was the last thing on his mind.
“I see how hard it was, and I told myself, ‘I don’t want to do this when I grow up,’” he said, laughing. “Ironically, I’m now doing restaurants myself, and I am in this industry very deep now.”
During his time off from school, Lim traveled voraciously. From when he was as young as 8 years old, he would travel alone — a bus ride of over 7 hours — to the village where his mother grew up.
“When you get to the place, you would have to call somebody, and somebody would come and pick you up on their motorcycle,” he said. The room where he slept was near the cow barn, and he fed the cows every morning.
His traveler’s spirit brought him to San Jose, California at the age of 16, where he worked and went to high school. He opened his own sandwich shop at 27, and launched Poké Bar soon after. East Hae, however, is his first Korean restaurant, which he and Dr. Abramov began planning back in 2017.
At East Hae, an open wood-burning grill is used to fire off kochi, Korean skewers, with head-on prawns, octopus, and short rib kalbi, Lim’s favorite. Oysters are char-grilled as well, and topped with a garlic miso butter. Vegetables are plentiful: skewers of maitake mushrooms and shishito peppers are barely touched, seasoned mainly with char.
Lim said that he wanted much of the menu to resemble Spanish tapas in the sense of small, quickly-prepared dishes. The menu was designed in collaboration with Chef Nick Koustefanou of award-winning bar Broken Shaker. Chef Jake S. Jung, who served as personal chef for former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, will take over as Executive Chef in March, and implement a new, seasonal menu.
The food is thoughtful and comforting: kimchi fried rice comes heaped on a plate with a perfect sunny-side egg, and there’s a “Crispy Chicken Sando” with spicy gochujang glaze, pickles, and Asian pear slaw. While the menu is mainly fusion-based, Lim explained, a few elements ring true to his own upbringing in South Korea: the shared Ssaam plate, for example, a dish of fish or sliced brisket served with lettuce wraps and kimchi, comes with three different sauces made from his mom’s recipes.
There are two desserts right now, including ice cream and a kkwabaegi, or a Korean twisted donut coated with sugar and cinnamon. These, Lim says, can be purchased all over South Korea, and are often sold wrapped in paper by older ladies with carts. At East Hae, they’re served warm, crispy, and with a choice of ice cream — impossible not to scarf down.
Paired with the food is a menu of exciting cocktails, including the complex Yeongi — smoke, in Korean — which combines smoked pineapple syrup with two Bacardi rums and Tiki bitters. The sugary Sagwa is made with mezcal, apple, ginger, and warm spice. There’s also a full selection of wine, beer, soju, and sake.
The industrial interior is club-like, with dim red lighting and hip hop music. The restaurant is above an Urban Outfitters and has two sections and a rooftop, which Lim hopes will get plenty of use later in the season.
Splashed across the walls is an extensive mural by local artist Kevin Rountree, depicting an imposing Korean warship sailing by river into New York, with the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan skyline in the background. The image tracks with the restaurant’s name: while Hae translates as sun in Korean, it means sea in Chinese, which Lim liked the ring of. He thought the name was an apt metaphor for a Korean American restaurant in Brooklyn, the East of New York.
East Hae is hip, but Lim and his staff genuinely want diners to feel happy and well-fed.
“Food and drink is how Korean people celebrate,” Lim said. In Korea, people often greet friends or family members with the phrase “let’s eat together.”
East Hae is located at 98 North 6th Street in Williamsburg on the third floor, right above Urban Outfitters. It’s open Tuesday and Wednesday from 5pm to 12am, Thursday and Friday from 5pm to 2am, Saturday from 2pm to 2am, and Sunday from 2pm to 10pm. Happy hour is Monday through Friday from 5pm to 8pm.