Woo Lae Oak: Over-Hyped Korean, Soho-Style
Let’s get this straight, Woo Lae Oak is really not Korean food – it is pan-Asian with heavy-handed Western influences disguised by some traditional Korean terminology.
On Mercer Street near the intersection with Prince, Woo Lae Oak is nestled in the heart of the chic shopping and dining district of Soho. And yes, that does speak volumes about the authenticity of this dining destination. Woo Lae Oak plays to the stylish youthful crowd that haunts the neighborhood, offering everything from do-it-yourself barbeque to dumplings to ahi tuna tartare and steak tartare. It is a party spot that plays to a wide palate of tastes, and the food is definitely an afterthought to the decor and the drink.
A seductive subterranean lair, the dark swanky setting is packed to the gills with pretty girls, fratty guys, and groups of loud boisterous young people enjoying bottles of sake and Sapporo. The front room has a long open kitchen and tables for smaller parties, while the back room has large U-shaped boothes able to seat 8. In the center of each table are not only the requisite tealight candles but also a petite steel barbeque contraption for at-the-table cooking. The cavernous setting echoes loudly the shouts and giggles of fellow diners and the on-trend electronic music adds to the general cacophony. Certainly don’t come here to have a nice chat – you won’t be able to hear a thing.
The service is, well, serviceable. Our waiter looked perpetually confused by our order, yet everything came out correctly, so you can’t blame him for that. His generally brusque and “I’m-too-cool-for-school” demeanour put me off, but he (and every other employee) was so attractive that you just had to forgive him.
I’ll spend a moment on the food, but just that because it was entirely inconsequential to the entire experience. It was flat/mediocre/ordinary and any other synonym you can think of. Not a whole lot of flavor, not any finesse, the grub is there because drinking people need to eat. The barbeque was satisfactory, but came with strange accoutrements and little sauce to add flavor; the bim bam baps were also satisfactory: large and hearty with a high proportion of rice to meat & vegetables. I would recommend sticking to the simple stuff – anything too funky may interrupt your big night out.
Woo Lae Oak is not a foodies’ restaurant; it’s not a place to sit down and truly savor your meal. Instead, it offers up the ideal spot to have a rowdy night with buddies, to pre-game your night out downtown, to host a birthday party or celebratory meal. Order up some sake and barbeque, gaze at the pretty people, maybe even flirt with the waiter, and enjoy yourself.