311 Holland Street, Durham
Chef Michael Lee wants you to feel cozy in M Kokko. His new Korean fried chicken concept opened yesterday. The space shares a backdoor with M Sushi
, Lee's basement restaurant that opened to high praise just earlier this year
Offering a mere twenty seats and five menu items, M Kokko is no wider than a shopping aisle at Target, and half its length. Slate-colored walls and exposed wooden ceiling beams give a clean backdrop to one piece of functional decor: a colorful chalkboard menu that includes a chicken sandwich, ramen, a rice bowl, "KFC" wings, and dan dan noodles (coming soon).
"The experience [here] is people two feet away from you," Lee says. "The slurping and the noises. When you have twenty people packed in here, that's the ambiance."
When Lee secured the spot for his first Durham venture, it offered a massive industrial kitchen with one extra room in the back. The space is too disjointed to work with the more upscale sushi restaurant.
So Lee began branching out and concocting ideas that put him on par with chefs like Roy Choi in Los Angeles and David Chang in New York and Washington D.C. Like them, Lee builds from his roots (he was born in Seoul, Korea), from an adventurous, meticulous palate, and uses his chops in both fine dining and fast-food kitchens to bring diners an amalgam of cultures represented in varied culinary techniques and ingredients.
Since beginning his run at Sono in Raleigh, Lee has been prepping a chicken recipe for M Kokko. In Korea, he says, fried chicken skirts through city streets on a moped and straight to your door. It's the takeout food you order as a family when no one feels like cooking, or when hanging out with friends. In perfecting this recipe, Lee is feeding his creativity from such memories.
The crust, as he calls it, must be extra crispy, and sauced in a spicy glaze of soy and garlic. Lee sources from local farms that he knows personally because "food labels don't mean anything." His method is conscientious and delicate: the whole chicken must completely air-dry first, using a salt rub to draw out all the moisture. It's then fried for twenty minutes, and allowed to rest for ten.
All of M Kokko's menus are priced within the $8 to $12 range. They are based in Lee's personal favorites. He makes dan dan noodle because he loves Sichuan cuisine. He utilizes the poultry in a chicken-based ramen with thin, al dente noodles. Classic "KFC" wings are the Korean version of what makes fast food so sinfully good.
What he's most excited about is the seasonal kimchi, which will pull ingredients from his parents' garden. Both of his parents, Choon Koo and Sung Ju Lee, will be working with him in making all the sides and condiments.
"It'll keep us connected," he says, with a quick laugh. "And the daily critiquing, of course. That will truly test my Korean cooking skills."
With M Kokko finished, Lee plans two new spots in downtown Durham: M BBQ (with charcoal grills, if the health department allows for it) and M Taco. For now, we've got a bucket of sticky-sweet chicken to tide us over.