There is a gaggle-of-gays truism that sticks to my organs when planning weekend dining: Brunch is the most important meal of your life. Usually spent recovering after a night of frolicking, brunch is a time when I aspire to communion with friends over shared eggs, meats, pitchers of water and, a trusted friend, hair of the dog. At Insa in Gowanus—the restaurant, bar, and karaoke project of chef Sohui Kim and partner Ben Schneider—the brunch menu’s Bloody Mary is combined with kimchi brine to create, in Kim’s words, “another take on a classic.”
Launched almost a decade after the opening of the couple’s successful Red Hook restaurant the Good Fork, Insa from the start has been invested in making familiar dishes with a unique autograph. The lens is Korean food, which Kim, who moved from South Korea to New York City when she was 10, says is “part of [her] bones.”
Kim draws from her culinary training and histories to “play with traditional techniques and tastes and have fun with it,” and kimchi behind the bar is just one example (note the “Kimchilada,” which adds the kimchi brine to a lager!). Like most of the menu’s creations, the Bloody Mary was made by experiment and play among Kim and the talented chefs at Insa. Using leftover kimchi brine from the banchan (small side dishes like pickled seaweed, corn sesame custard and quick cucumber kimchi) always served at dinner and brunch, the staff innovatively mixed a sustainable platform of little waste with a new concoction that truly sparkles on its own.
To try their Bloody Mary, you’ll choose between vodka (classic) and the Chamisul Classic Soju. Their recipe (below) keeps the drink’s essential skeleton with the tomato juice and standard seasonings bringing familiar heat. However, when the added brine and Soju hit the palate, you get a middle-to-end light tartness that balances the spice with something fresh, easy and maybe a little too drinkable for those of us who enjoy a liquid brunch.
Most of the brine used in the Bloody Mary is made using Kim’s “quick kimchi” technique, which churns out more kimchi by quartering the cabbage and fermenting for a week tops. Making the Korean staple at the restaurant is as regular a process as setting the tables or having to tell a group of singers that their karaoke hour is sadly up. Some menu items and banchan get the benefit of a three-week fermented kimchi, which brings the super sour and funky flavors of Sohui’s family’s age-old technique center stage.
The Bloody Mary will cost you 10 bucks if you go with the Soju, 12 with the vodka. Garnished with a Castelvetrano olive, a spicy pickled onion and a pickled ramp on a bamboo sword. The final touch, a sprinkle of togarashi salt, is a great warm up for the pipes should you need to belt an aria in the “jungle room” or the “deep space room,” among others with extra kitsch. The star-shy might even try wearing the astronaut helmet if worried about pitch or oxygen levels. Keep the karaoke dos and don’ts in mind: “Do discover your hidden talent for the tambourine. Don’t discover the tambourine hidden in your bag when you get home.”
On a recent evening at Cobble Hill’s late BookCourt, Kim gave a reading and kimchi making demo in promotion of her new cookbook The Good Fork. “Kimchi,” she clarified there, “really defies recipe in the sense that it’s always made to taste.” Like the variations of a vinegar sauce for barbecue in my home state of North Carolina, kimchi brine in a Bloody Mary brings to mind those traditions that keep inspiring fun spin-offs, sometimes underneath the grooviest of disco balls.
Karaoke rooms are available for rent by the hour anytime Insa is open, and the discography is impressive. Take a peek here. And if you’re looking for suggestions, here are a few of the author’s song picks inspired by the kimchi Bloody Mary itself:
Insa’s Bloody Mary Recipe
Our house Bloody Mary is all about balance and umami. Our base has all the familiar ingredients you’ll find in your typical Bloody Mary, but the added ingredients give ours a good amount of salt, spice and funk.
Yields 10 pint-size beverages
2½ cups soju
5 ounces kimchi brine (we use the brine left over from our house kimchi)
5 cups Bloody Mary base (recipe below)
Combine in a pitcher and stir well.
We garnish ours with a Castelvetrano olive, spicy pickled onion and a pickled ramp on a bamboo sword per glass and a sprinkle of togarashi salt on top.
Bloody Mary Base
64 ounces [1 can] tomato juice
1 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon Tabasco
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon horseradish
½ teaspoon wasabi powder
½ teaspoon celery salt