As I made the trip from my office to Academy and Flintridge, I tried to recall the last time I had eaten Korean food. The more I thought about it, the less I believed the answer I kept coming to: not since I was a teenager. Excited about reconnecting with foods I had really loved, I was also a bit nervous. What would I remember? Had I ever eaten anything besides barbecued short ribs?
My destination was Quini, which opened just 11 weeks ago. Given the location and my past experience -- and probably a small dose of cultural essentializing -- I expected a to find a sparse hole-in-the-wall with a limited menu.
I immediately realized I'd learned another lesson in the pitfalls of prejudice. Quini owner J. J. Song has created a thoroughly hip environment and a variety of excellent dishes he describes as gourmet Korean cuisine that blends tradition with fusion.
With impressive vision, Song and a considerable group of helpers have done a remarkable job with a typical Colorado Springs strip-mall space. The walls are bathed in a pale orange-peach -- like a vanilla-heavy Creamsicle -- and the customarily hideous, acoustic-tiled drop ceiling has mercifully given way to exposed ducts painted a dark charcoal gray. All of this sets the stage for some very creative finishing touches. A tall chair rail of wood-framed, corrugated aluminum runs throughout the room, reflecting the light beaming down from abstract, plywood cutout chandeliers adorned with curly metal strips. The result is at once serene and stimulating.
Against this modern backdrop, Quini serves up some authentically traditional Korean food. In fact, "Quini" (pronounced "kwi-nee") is Korean for "meal," and it's hard to go wrong here.
Song grew up in Seoul, where his family has owned and operated restaurants for 30 years. After more than six years in Chicago, and with a family of his own, Song moved to Colorado Springs. When he decided to open his own restaurant, his mother flew out from Korea to spend six months schooling him on family recipes, including one for kimchi, a Korean staple made from fermented cabbage and flavored with hot chilies. The outcome is a formidable combination of classic and contemporary dishes.
When I asked Song about one plate that seemed particularly interesting, he replied that it was "too ethnic" -- a notion I normally reject. He noted that aside from the dish's considerable heat, it incorporated cow stomach, at which point I conceded, deciding to hold off until a later visit.
Fear not, though. Many less-intimidating offerings await. Taking Song's advice, my dining companion and I took a more novice approach to familiarizing ourselves with Quini's menu. We started with Kim Bab, a roll stuffed with rice and wrapped in dried seaweed. Close to a sushi roll in appearance, it's quite different in flavor and construction, with less rice and a well-blended filling of tofu and vegetables like kanpyo, a carrotlike plant with a sweet flavor and nice crunch. The rice isn't overwhelming and its bite size is enjoyable.
Next we sampled Galbi Kimchi Jjigae, a hearty stew. Big pieces of Quini's family kimchi recipe and slices of braised short rib float in a bright red broth built from beef-bone stock. The added heat from the kimchi and other ingredients produce a profound flavor that defies further description.
Entrees are equally provocative and delicious. We sampled through the grilled items, trying sweet and smoky short ribs (Galbi), spicy pork and chicken, and savory marinated barbecued beef (Bulgoki). Each was expertly prepared, delightfully moist and decidedly tasty. We couldn't decide which we liked best, and our fingers flew from plate to plate, rotating between the choices.
Portions are ample and include a dizzying array of side dishes and condiments like small fried fish cakes, a dried squid salad and an out-of-this-world pile of slightly pickled daikon strands. The julienned strips and delicate texture of the Korean Potato Salad caught us by surprise. Joining the fray was Song's tart and spicy kimchi, a flavorful treat.
J. J. Song and his Quini staff are surely doing Song's mother proud. Quini does just about everything right, creating an inviting dining area, offering a dynamic menu and attending to all the details in a way that makes you feel important.
-- David Torres-Rouff
4703 N. Academy Blvd.
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 5- 9 p.m.