Over the past eight months, I have been on a serious Korean food kick. After neglecting this complex cuisine for more than a decade, I rediscovered it at the now-departed Quini almost two years ago. Kindly pushing me forward, four friends introduced me to New Seoul, a homestyle Korean eatery that's been largely responsible for my continued cravings.
Characterized by a persistent interplay between flavors, temperatures and textures, Korean food is a study in contrasts. And so is New Seoul itself. Carts loaded down with side dishes and sizzling platters pull up beside simple tables and chairs set in a square room. Homemade kimchis and other exotic snacks are fetched from refrigerator cases that line one wall. A giant television anchors another, projecting Korean soaps by day and action-adventure programming at night.
The menu leaves simplicity behind, providing ample opportunities for self-guided gustatory adventures. Choices range from grilled fare, such as galbi (short ribs) and bulgoki (thinly sliced steak), to truly rare offerings like ox blood soup (served absolutely burbling in a large stone pot) and braised pigs' feet. Soups, stews and mixed plates round out the options.
Nearly ubiquitous at Korean restaurants in the U.S., the grilled meats are categorically tasty. Chicken, short ribs, beef and pork following a soak in soy sauce and brown sugar and a sear over high heat are tender, sweet and savory. A range of side plates containing pickled veggies, rice and seaweed squares always accompanies the protein.
To eat in the customary fashion, take a square of seaweed, spoon on a dab of hot chile, a bit of rice and a piece of meat. Add a piece of kimchi cabbage, cucumber, or radish close the little packet, and pop it into your mouth. Here the culinary genius unfolds, as sweet, warm and soft rice converges with spicy, cool crispy pickled vegetables.
Fried rice fans simply must try bibimbap, which pairs meat, seafood or tofu with mixed vegetables, rice and a fried egg. Neatly divided, the items arrive sizzling on a hot stone plate, surrounded by sides, and ready to be mixed and condiment-ed to taste. Again, flavors and textures collide, and the egg's liquid center adds a velvety richness.
Like so many small, independent restaurants, things at New Seoul don't always run like clockwork. Certain dishes might be unavailable on certain days, the menu can confuse novices, and a few sections are written only in Korean. One of my forays there yielded a giant platter of mixed seafood and vegetables over a bed of noodles. Although beautiful, it lacked punch and freshness.
Other risks have been rewarded, especially when hot liquids are involved. The spicy seafood soup offers a chile-spiked broth, chunky noodles, bits of cabbage kimchi and a healthy portion of crustaceans and bivalves. A rich, dark, beef consomm hosted short rib pieces and mixed vegetables in another lunchtime offering. Each restored my spirits and relieved the pain of a cold afternoon.
Lunch specials for $5.99 bring a good afternoon crowd, and the menu is priced fairly ($8 to $30 for entres) throughout. A meal at New Seoul is more than a good value, however. The symphony of flavor will gratify your taste buds and stimulate your culinary intellect. At least that's why I think I keep going back.
New Seoul Korean Restaurant
3322 E. Fountain Blvd., 574-2828
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 1-9 p.m.