We’re launching our vegetable-forward exploration of Jersey City’s most acclaimed restaurants with a look at the modern Korean eatery Ondo (3 2nd St.). Korean food is often associated with barbecue, bibimbap with slices of spicy pork, and giant platters of bulgogi in thick folds. But what if you aren’t interested in eating meat? Is there anything for you? We headed to the waterfront to find out.
Why we’re interested: Ondo has only been around for a year or so, but it’s already pole-vaulted onto on lists of the best restaurants in the state. NJ.com counted Ondo among the 25 best of 2022. Jersey Digs placed it on its Jersey City “Where to Eat” guide. It’s got an excellent lineage: Ondo is run by the same team that brought us DOMODOMO, the Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning sushi empire with an outpost right across the block in the Urby Apartments. DOMODOMO deserves its accolades. But frankly, Ondo is a more compelling spot.
Is it vegetarian friendly? Just barely.
The menu is divided into three sections: cold, warm, and hot food. Most of the bigger dishes are found among the hot stuff — and the hot stuff is almost entirely fish or meat. The exception is the cast iron fried rice. Many vegetarians don’t eat eggs, and I am usually one of them, but I ordered it anyway. There are two pure vegetarian dishes in the warm section: a glass noodle bowl and the mushroom rice. We got them both. Weirdly, the cold shrimp pine nut salad is listed on the menu as a vegan option. When I asked our server about this (service was attentive), she explained that the salad could be made without the shrimp, but she suggested we refrain from that. She didn’t realize I was there on a mission. It’s worth noting that the reservation service that Ondo uses allows a prospective diner to indicate that he or she is a vegetarian. I did. Nobody at the restaurant noticed.
Fried Tofu Salad
These juicy nuggets of tofu peeped out from under a thatched roof of microgreens. Little pieces of broccolini and crumbled pecan encircled the fried cubes that rested on a shallow pool of yuzu (the Koreans call it yuza) yogurt. Everything was harmonious and nicely balanced: the skin of the tofu was crispy and the freshness of the little greens and the tartness of the yuzu counteracted the oiliness that always accompanies deep frying. The tactile pleasure of biting into a fried crust is preserved, but the rest of the dish is so bright and evocative of a garden that it doesn’t feel unhealthy in the slightest. This is a winner, and it’s hard to imagine going to Ondo and passing it up. Five stars.
Shrimp Pine Nut Salad (minus shrimp)
What can I say?; I think our server was wrong. It’s hard to see how a piece of shrimp, no matter how expertly poached, could improve this very satisfying appetizer. The slices of pear, asparagus, red sorrel leaves, and lotus root that came in this salad were all so fresh that it did not require much enhancement. But the star of the dish was the sauce, which was the color and thickness of melted French vanilla ice cream and nearly as sweet. Pine nut and mustard dressings aren’t uncommon at sophisticated Korean spots, but this one was so rich and complex that it assumed the character of malted chocolate. This could have been served as a dessert and I wouldn’t have blinked. It was like a Korean mole, and I’d definitely order it again — sans crustaceans. Four and a half stars.
Japchae Glass Noodles
After the novelty and surprise of the cold dishes, this one felt more familiar, even as it landed on the table in a ceramic UFO. It wasn’t too far removed from a vegan pad Thai: lots of sliced vegetables and shimeji mushrooms over super-elastic cellophane noodles that gave the impression that they’d stretch from one end of the restaurant to the other if they were tugged hard enough. The green medley on top was heavy on the peppers, including a few tongue-busting jalapeños, so do beware of that. The clever move here was the addition of slices of raw fennel, which imparted a licorice snap and a sense of coolness to a medley that was not short on capsaicin. I could have used more noodles relative to the amount of peppers, but I’m a noted noodlehead, and there can never be too many for me. Four stars.
This was the revelation of the night: a dish so elemental that it seemed to speak straight to the unconscious, and so profound that it activated sketchy memories of eating rice as a toddler. The rice arrived under a blanket of mushroom sliced so thinly that it might as well have been flower petals, and dotted with tiny florets of purple cauliflower. It was so perfectly cooked and feathery-light that every grain felt discrete. A dash of truffle oil amplified the aroma that rose from the little cup in a column of mushroomy steam. The only problem with this dish was that there simply wasn’t enough of it. Five stars, easily.
Cast Iron Fried Rice
My dinner companions wondered if a second rice dish might feel redundant. It did not. The mushroom rice was streamlined as a Japanese rock garden; the fried rice was a heap of ingredients, including kimchi, corn, alliums, sesame seeds, and dashes of nori. The mushroom rice was a tumbler of jewels, while the fried rice stuck to the bottom of the cast iron in the pleasing, gooey style of bibimbap. But mainly, the mushroom rice had rice as its protagonist, and the fried rice was dominated by a great ring of yellow egg that surrounded the grains and vegetables. This was actually a boon for a vegetarian ambivalent about eggs, since it was easy enough to scoop up the stuff in the middle and leave the rest for others to eat. What I discovered when I did that was quite hot and very sweet. The glass noodles, too, came in a sweet sauce, and I’ve already described the near-chocolatey flavor of the pine nut salad. Vegetarian items at Ondo are often as sugary as dessert. Three and a half stars.
Pineapple Soft Serve
This actually was dessert: a frozen torch of pineapple ice cream too firm to be mistaken for soft serve (not that this was a problem). The ice cream was adorned by tiny pieces of diced pineapple, a leaf-shaped lace cookie in matcha green, and a few dots of blueberries. The diced pineapple was an unnecessary textural change-up, the cookie was more for show than it was for flavor, and the blueberries were the only thing we were served all night that was obviously out of season. Everything else we had at Ondo seemed straight from the farm. But when the ice cream as is piquant and refreshing as this was, these are minor quibbles. Four stars.
Ondo is one of the prettiest restaurants in town, with a handsome marble-topped bar, a front room positioned to catch long sunset rays, and tables lit by shapely sconces on the wall. Everything has been scrupulously curated, right down to the cutlery and tableware. Even the bathrooms shared design details with the rest of the restaurant. Plating was inspired, and service was impeccable. We went on a crowded Tuesday night and we were surrounded by hungry diners, but the staff didn’t miss a stitch. I have found that sweating the details correlates with culinary conscientiousness, and it’s safe to say that Ondo has got it going on.
This is no vegetarian haven. All around our little table, other customers were ordering Korean fried chicken, beef tartare, pork belly in a fiery splash of ssanjam, and slabs of bulgogi and octopus tentacles stirred into bowls of long pasta. This is clearly where Ondo’s heart is. Yet the non-carnivorous dishes here are no afterthought. They’re designed with the same care as the rest of the menu — and the rest of the restaurant — is. Ondo is not cutting corners, and their ambition and creativity are admirable. You might have to walk a tightrope to get it and make a few requests for modifications, but it is possible for a vegetarian to eat very well here. Given the high level of quality of the food at this spot, it’s virtually certain that any vegetarian option they add to the menu in the future will be worth investigating. I’ll keep checking on them in the hope they do. In the meantime, I’m more than satisfied with what they’ve got. Ondo: four (green) stars.