By Greg Cox
Originally published March 2, 2017.
The details: 311-B Holland St., Durham, 919-908-9332, facebook.com/mkokkodurham
Strictly speaking in terms of location, gems don’t get much more hidden than M Kokko. Open since last fall in downtown Durham, the restaurant’s entrance is on a side alley around the corner from its sibling establishment, M Sushi – which itself is located on an alley.
But people have had no trouble finding the place, judging by how quickly its 20 seats fill up after the restaurant opens for lunch or dinner. That should come as no surprise, given the reputation of owner/chef Mike Lee, who already has earned a loyal fan base at M Sushi and at Sono in downtown Raleigh.
At both those restaurants, the Korean-born Lee built a reputation as one of the area’s premier sushi chefs. With his latest venture, as its name wittily suggests (kokko is Korean slang for chicken), he turns to his native cuisine – and, you might say, spreads his wings a bit – with a menu focused on chicken.
It’s a very brief menu – barely half a dozen options on a typical night, each dish artfully illustrated in colored chalk on a blackboard spanning one wall of the narrow dining room. You can’t go wrong, though, so that’s plenty of choices.
The house specialty is “KFC” wings, the K standing for Korean – as in that country’s famously extra-crispy twice-fried chicken. Twelve bucks gets you eight wings (more if they’re small; Lee explains that his locally sourced chickens are variable in size), glazed with a classic soy-garlic sauce or a spicy-sweet sauce riddled with freshly toasted red chiles. That price also gets you a small dish of house-pickled daikon and a seasonal vegetable side – sautéed kale, last time I ate there.
I also scored a first-rate bowl of ramen with soy-braised pork belly, wood ear mushrooms and soft-boiled egg in a paitan broth, a chicken-bone variation on the classic tonkotsu broth that gets its rich flavor and milky color from long-simmered pork bones.
Lee’s respectful take on another Korean classic, jjiajang men, serves up ramen noodles and soy-marinated chicken tossed in black bean sauce, garnished with quail eggs and cucumber. And his chicken sandwich features a boneless breast marinated in leftover juices from the house-pickled daikon and cucumber, then drenched in buttermilk and fried in a light Korean-style tempura batter.
With successful restaurants focused on seafood and chicken under his belt, chef Lee has set his sights on the other protein groups. M BBQ and M Taco are on the drawing board, as is a yet-to-be-named vegetarian concept. It’s too early to say whether their locations will qualify as hidden, but it’s a good bet that they’ll be gems.