By PETE TITTL, Contributing columnist
Korean food is not considered one of the world's great cuisines, but it has to be one of the most addictive. I've received emails from servicemen who had extended tours there, and they speak of an almost religious need to get a fix of it occasionally. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law spent years there when he was manning missile defense systems, and the food is on the top of their list of what they miss about Korea.
Thus I had to bring them along as tour guides/storytellers when I visited Seoul, a restaurant that opened late last year in a space on Coffee Road just north of Rosedale Highway that was last occupied by Toro Sushi, which moved into the larger space in the same shopping center that was originally occupied by Camille's Sidewalk Cafe. Not a lot has been done to the interior, the weakest aspect of the restaurant, but the food is as authentic as it comes based on my admittedly non-native sensibilities as well as the word of my in-laws, Chad and Megan.
3615 Coffee Road
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations recommended.
Prices: Appetizers, $7.99 to $12.99; "soup entrees," $9.99 to $17.99; seafood, $14.99 to $17.99; rice and noodles, $11.99 to $13.99; beef/chicken/pork entrees, $13.99 to $26.99; combinations, $12.99 to $16.99.
Payment: MasterCard, VISA, American Express and Discover accepted. Personal checks not accepted.
Dress: Casually dressy
Amenities: Wheelchair accessible; beer and wine served; many vegetarian options.
The craziest aspect of dining here are the 13 small bowls of food they bring out before the entrees, called banchan in Korean cuisine. Sure we can recognize many of them --American-style potato salad, the classic kimchi, tofu, bean sprouts, cooked spinach -- but others are just sampling in the dark. I'd bet that neophytes would appreciate a laminated card with pictures, labels and descriptions, as many sushi restaurants provide. It's all about comfort levels as well as education for the less-experienced diners if business is to expand.
Fortunately we were dining with Chad and Megan, who had recently returned from an Army posting in South Korea. When they first arrived in the Asian country, they were apprehensive of Korean food but grew to love it. So it's a high compliment to the restaurant when the two praised the food they were served at Seoul.
"If we lived here, we'd be visiting regularly," Megan said.
They mentioned there are literally hundreds of versions of kimchi and spotted several in the bowls of banchan brought out, including a jalapeno kimchi, zucchini kimchi, dried fish kimchi, spinach kimchi and pickles kimchi-style. Anything with the distinctive red dots from the peppers and the vinegary presence is probably a variation on kimchi.
I recall tales from my dad, a cook in the Air Force who was stationed in Korea, talking about how the Korean soldiers needed it shipped to them at the front lines and how it had to be included in all three meals every day.
Other banchan choices on our visits included oodong (fish cakes), anchovies and pickled radish. Per Korean tradition, any of these bowls will be refilled at your request like chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant (a waiter came by late in the meal to ask if we wanted more of any of them).
We ordered a lot of what my in-laws came to love during their stay in Korea, such as Mandu ($8.99), which are most similar to Chinese potstickers. They mentioned that in Korea, they come steamed or fried; these were "lightly fried," according to the menu, which means halfway. Not completely crispy. Inside was a wonderful mix of finely chopped shrimp and vegetables, though Chad said all varieties of meat are available back there.
We also ordered the job chae ($9.99), clear sweet potato noodles stir-fried in sesame oil with bulgogi and vegetables. It's like a soup with fantastic ingredients, though Chad noted the combination of soy sauce, sesame oil and a bit of sweetness is what makes that dish irresistible. The bulgogi is the thinly sliced beef usually presented on a sizzling platter with white onion strands, and it's also memorable here with white rice. Other ingredients in the job chae included white onions, mushrooms, red peppers, carrots and spinach.
On another visit, I ordered the kalbi ($17.99), while my companion selected the Hot Bowl BiBimBap ($11.99). The kalbi is made with beef short ribs, thinly sliced and bone left in, marinated in soy and garlic and cooked on an open fire. I know short ribs are a trendy cut of beef right now, but I've always thought the Koreans handle this tough cut the best. Served with rice and lots of grilled onions and sesame seeds and requiring you to deftly cut away the bone and gristle, it was an exceptional choice, brought to the table on a sizzling platter like fajitas.
My companion's choice with the funny name (it sounds like something you'd say when trying to avoid using swear words) is a classic Korean bowl creation made with rice, which gets crunchy brown at the bottom from the sizzling stone bowl, thinly sliced beef and sauteed vegetables -- carrots, zucchini, spinach, bean sprouts and mushrooms. The crowning touch was a runny egg that got popped and drizzled down through the layers of this huge bowl.
Seoul also offers 13 different soups and stews.
Service from the small staff was efficient and pleasant. They want to spread the word about their cuisine, but most of the customers when we visited seemed to know their way around a Korean menu.
Korean pop music was playing in the background, and, yes, That Overplayed Song by Psy did make an auditory appearance. We rode our imaginary horses in his honor.
There were some concessions to American style, Megan noted. In Korean restaurants a water bottle is left on the table and you're expected to refill your glass as needed (here, the hostess did that).
Napkins are a rarity back in Korea, though we were given cloth napkins here. And when the waitress brought our bill, she presented it with her hand very close to her wrist, a gesture Megan said is a sign of high respect.
If I were to present this review to the restaurant's owners manually, I would do the same.
Seoul can be recommended for a fine dining experience.