The Korean BBQ scene in Charlotte will soon be getting its newest member, MOA Korean BBQ & Bar. Situated in uptown Charlotte, MOA — which means “gathering” in Korean — is a restaurant whose concept is centered on traditional Korean cuisine with modern, upscale ambiance.
“[The] first goal is to keep all the traditional [Korean] flavors,” restaurant founder Sean Kim said.
Kim said he had been disappointed with the settings and lack of service at some other Korean restaurants and wanted to create a better experience.
“There was a lack of explanation of food ingredients and a lack of drink options. I decided, if I open a restaurant, it will be full service, with a bar and a modern interior,” Kim said.
MOA is another notch on the belt for the restaurateur, who also owns 929 Kitchen & Bar in Columbia, SC.
According to MOA’s website, “929’s foundation is based on providing high-quality Korean dishes and drinks, with an eclectic and modern twist. MOA is the byproduct of 929; by capturing this same Korean style of cuisine while raising the bar even further, through the food, environment, and service.”
929 Kitchen & Bar, which is currently open for take-out orders, has seen great success and is known to draw a large crowd on weekdays and weekends, averaging 200 to 300 people every day, according to Kim.
“I learned American people love Korean food,” Kim said about the growth and success that inspired another restaurant.
Once that decision was made, selecting a location for MOA was the next carefully calculated decision.
He considered Charleston and Atlanta, even traveling to check out their respective food scenes before landing on Charlotte, which has a special meaning to the restaurant founder.
“I love Charlotte,” Kim said. “It’s way different from when I was in college.”
Traveling the country to study the latest and greatest in Korean BBQ restaurants has always been Kim’s practice to stay current in his craft.
“I’ve been traveling to New York, Los Angeles and Miami [to study] Korean spots since 2016, 2017,” Kim said of his quest to study what makes Korean restaurants great and what the pain points might be. No surprise, the exploration proved revealing.
For example, at even the best of the best Korean BBQ restaurants, including one with a Michelin star, Kim discovered that the BBQ tables produced too much smoke from poor ventilation.
“[At MOA,] our No. 1 focus is full service. Second, is the structure. Nowadays, tabletops are underdressed. Here [at MOA] we raised the floor and ventilated under the table so customers don’t see a big fan over the table,” said Kim, who wants his customers to be able to enjoy their conversations without the interruption of loud fans overhead.
When it comes to the cuisine, courtesy of veteran Executive Chef Roy Seo, MOA isn’t leaving anything to be desired.
The lunch menu will feature traditional favorites such as lunch boxes, which include a choice of protein with vegetables (green pepper, red bell pepper and onion) stir-fried white rice, a two-piece fried tofu roll, three-piece Mandoo (Korean dumplings), and the choice of soup or a salad.
It also features bulgogi and bibimbab or “mixed bowl” which includes rice and a selection of vegetables and protein, and is served in a sizzling hot stone bowl, giving the rice a crispy texture.
Japchae, or glass noodles, is another highly anticipated item on the menu.
“We use fresh veggies, and we cook it in a Chinese wok so you will get that smoky flavor on top,” Kim said.
A ‘grand atmosphere’
The restaurant’s decorative vibe was artfully curated with the help of a New York designer.
“Grand” is the word Kim used with his interior designer. He wanted “a dark mood with brass light fixtures, and high ceilings – a grand atmosphere,” Kim said.
The concept was always to create a space for family gatherings, fun nights out and fun by tabletop. And with a space that holds approximately 240 people, including four different dining sections, a lounge area, outdoor seating and mezzanine seating that overlooks the dining room, an upstairs wine cellar and a window display of dry-aged meat, “grand” seems to be the most accurate assessment of what restaurant-goers can look forward to.
While Kim’s Columbia restaurant is open for to-go orders, MOA won’t open until the founder feels the pandemic climate is safer for his customers.
“[We’re] hoping [COVID-19] numbers go down and the situation improves,” Kim said on what he’d like to see before officially opening the restaurant.
And when it does, he plans to do all he can to ensure his customers have a safe experience.
“I purchased a thermal camera in March to be installed in front of the hostess stand. [It can] capture the temperature of 8 people and is pretty much the same as a thermometer,” Kim said.
Until its opening, Kim continues to prepare the ultimate dining experience for his future guests, and testaments to his attention to detail aren’t hard to find. He recently bought some ceramic plates and chopsticks from South Korea to enhance the plating and display.
128 S. Tryon St.