Is Korean food the final frontier for the American palate?
Now that Thai and Japanese are common, are we all ready to give fermented and heavily chilied cabbage a try? My first introduction was about 15 years ago, with bulgogi, thin grilled beef with a sweet sauce served piping hot. What's not to like there? Kimchee, spicy cabbage that is a staple of Korean cooking, is a bit more of a challenge. There are as many variations as there are ways to serve it. Kimchee chigae ($9.95) is a soup that will clear your sinuses and leave you sweating.
Korea Na is the only restaurant in Toledo offering Korean dining, Sounds and smells of a faraway nation drift through the somewhat minimalist but artful interior. Service can be a bit slow, but this isn't an assembly-line restaurant. The owner waits on tables as his wife cooks in the back, and he is more than willing to make recommendations, give descriptions, or tell you about his culture or the droves of Korean golfers that descended during the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic.
My companions and I started with maki ($5.95) which is essentially a sushi roll with thin slices of grilled beef inside, and the dumpling-like gyoza ($10.95 for a large serving, $5.95 for a smaller serving), crisp with a nice smoky char and ground beef and vegetables inside. Both were served with a light soy-based sauce studded with scallions, and both were well received. The duk bok ki ($6.95), with spicy chili sauce enveloping rice cakes, fish cakes, kimchee, and vegetables, is the perfect combination of textures and flavors.
Entrees are served with five or six small side dishes that change with each visit. Cabbage kimchee, radish kimchee, cucumber and seaweed salad, broccoli with sesame seeds, black beans, and small dried fish in sesame sauce were presented to us. The radish kimchee was spectacular, crunchy, spicy, and tart.
When choosing entrees, we stuck with the classics: bulgogi ($14.95) and kalbi ($15.95), practically the national dishes of Korea; dolsot bibim bab ($10.95) and chap chae ($10.95), common street fare; and tang su yuk ($11.95), a variation on sweet and sour pork.
Bulgogi and kalbi rely on high quality meat and expert preparation, and neither disappointed at Korea Na. Kalbi features meaty beef ribs with a dark sweet sauce, cut against the bone. For fans of American barbecue, it is an unexpected and exciting take on great meat and spicy sweet sauce.
Chap chae mixes thin translucent noodles, vegetables, and grilled chicken with a smoky brown sauce. The delicate noodles are a nice counterpoint to the bold sauce.
Dolsot bibim bab is brought to the table in a sizzling stone bowl topped with a raw egg and a bowl of sauce. The diner mixes it all together thoroughly and the end result is fried rice with a hearty glaze, thinly sliced beef, and fresh crunchy vegetables. The small chunks of grilled rice, the result of the sizzling bowl, are heavenly.
The tang su yuk was less impressive. The batter felt a little too heavy, the pork a little too tough, and the sauce lacked complexity. This may have been the obligatory "American" offering to satisfy the less adventurous diner.
Be bold, order the traditional specialties of the house, and enjoy a culture that loves a good grilled piece of meat as much as we do.
Contact Bill of Fare at: firstname.lastname@example.org.