Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Korean BBQ: Kimchi and beyond
Last night Vronsky and I had a little date at Woo Lae Oak, a Korean BBQ joint, which used to be the trendy SoHo restaurant du jour a few years back, but has held its own as its trendiness abates by serving phenomenal authentic Korean food while still staying approachable to diners who might not be familiar with Korean cuisine.
Growing up, my family was actually quite fond of Korean cuisine, and we would frequent the Woo Lae Oak in DC as well as a few places in the Korean neighborhoods in DC and Virginia, which has a large Korean population. My mother always manned the grill in dinners past, and so it was a real thrill for me to finally be my own grill master last night.
For those of you that have never had Korean BBQ, it is fairly straightforward: the meat and/or veggies are cooked right there at your table, which has its own little grill right in the center. It helps to be handy with chopsticks, as wooden ones are provided to tend to the meat, but you can ask for a fork or other utensil of your choosing.
The menu offers a lot of different protein options, but I recommend the bulgogi, (thinly sliced marinated rib eye) which is the traditional Korean preparation. They also have chicken, filet mignon, etc. but something about how the bulgogi is marinated just blows everything out of the water. Plus, because it is so thinly sliced, it cooks very quickly a will get these lovely charred edges, which are my favorite part. I am always tempted to try and lick the grill at the end, but not to fear, I always refrain. I like to wrap the cooked bulgogi in a large leaf of romaine lettuce, like a taco. The crispness of the lettuce compliments the smokey, savory flavor of the meats.
Vronsky was in 7th heaven and was thisclose to ordering another serving. He had always insisted he didn't like Korean BBQ, but I am convinced, based upon his most recent reaction, that the last time he tried Korean food, he ordered the wrong thing.
We also ordered some mixed vegetables (baby corn, shaved carrot, squash slices, snow peas, and some assorted mushrooms) to grill alongside the bulgogi and accompany the bevy of spicy sides that accompany any traditional Korean meal.
The center of this side-dish display is kimchi, which is, according to the latest issue of Saveur, my favorite food magazine in all the land, more important to Korea's culinary tradition than any other food to any other country's culinary identity. I don't doubt it--kimchi is freaking awesome, and apparently you can find kimchi on the table for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, and any time in between, in Korean households.
Kimchi has an incredibly unique texture and flavor: it starts with the crunch and cool taste of the cabbage leaves, followed by the chunks of daikon, which is a type of Asian radish, followed by a chili paste that slowly starts to burn your tongue, and then cools down to reveal a hunt of garlic, ginger, and what I can only describe as sea salt. Some say it heats the belly and cools the throat, preparing the palate for the next part of the meal, similar to how wasabi and pickled ginger are supposed to cleans the palate between different sushi/sashmi rolls.
I myself can only handle a bit of kimchi at a time due to its heat, but Woo Lae Oak offers a bit of milder kimchi as well, which Vronsky and I both devoured. After stuffing ourselves with bulgogi, sauteed vegetables, and these amazing chilled duck rolls with plum sauce (fact: plum sauce makes everything better), we finished our wine by the bar with some green tea ice cream, which came in a bowl made entirely of ice. An amazing idea! It keeps the ice cream cold throughout the languid pace that usually follows the end of a meal when people are finishing off their wine/drinks. I can't believe I had never seen it before.
It is always exciting to turn someone on to a new cuisine, and Vronsky professed that Woo Lae Oak is his new favorite restaurant and that we need to come back as early as next week. I will work on my grill skillz so that next I go out for Korean with my family, my mom and I can duke it out for who sizzles out a better bulgogi.
Woo Lae Oak is in SoHo on Mercer, near Prince St. Or just mill around New York's Korea Town, which is loosely bordered by 5th and 6th Ave. and 30th to 36th Street.
Pictured above: bulgogi lettuce wraps at top left, kimchi below right.