Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Seoul Korean Restaurant

My first Korean food experience was over shots of soju (a potent rice liquor) and diy grilled bulgogi shortribs in the heart of New York City's K-Town. My soju drinking days were short-lived but once in awhile I'll long for the fiery kick of gochujang chili paste and all the fun little side dishes. For as long as I've lived in Albany, I never really sought out Korean restaurants until I came across a few Korean dishes at Kinnaree on Lark Street. Kinnaree is better known for its Thai specialities but once I tried a bibimbap bowl, I knew I had to seek out more Korean specialities. That's when J and I came across Seoul Korean Restaurant in Latham. We spotted Seoul while exploring Indian food at Shalimar's next door. We were dead set on satisfying a craving for Indian food on that particular night and knew we had to come back and visit their Korean neighbor.

This time, our trip to SKR was J's first Korean food experience. The menu is a modest combination of rice, stir-fry, and soup dishes. A friend once made homemade veggie pancakes and we were compelled to try the restaurant's seafood version (hae mool pah juhl) for an appetizer. This huge pancake was loaded with veggies like scallions, zucchini, and carrots and an assortment of seafood. The textural contrast of all the elements was delightful: crisp exterior, soft and moist inside, crunchy veggies, and chewy pieces of octopus. The pancake comes with soy sauce but I enjoyed it the most with bites of kimchi. 

Before our appetizers even came out we were treated to a typical spread of small side dishes known as banchan. These side dishes vary and on our recent trip we got a mix of pickled veggies ranging from the classic fermented spicy cabbage known as kimchi and pickled spicy radishes, a potato and onion stir fry, sauteed mushrooms, and wedges of a veggie egg omelet. They were all simple bites to nosh on but the star of the quintet was most definitely the homemade kimchi. Contrary to my own previous prejudices, Korean food isn't all about blow your head off spicy food. This signature Korean condiment is the perfect balance of sour and spicy and the cabbage still had a lovely crisp and crunch to it. Think of kimchi as Korean sauerkraut that pairs well with just about everything. Bonus: you can even get refills of your favorite banchan if you ask nicely. I recommend loading up on more kimchi.

For the sake of comparison, I wanted to try the bibimbap rice bowl but opted for the dol sot version, which comes served in a sizzling stone bowl. Bibim bahp is simply a mixed bowl of rice with vegetables (a mix of zucchini, bean sprouts, radish and carrots) and meat topped with a fried egg (with runny yolk!) and seaweed. All the elements are separated but the fun part is stirring all the ingredients together with swirls of gochujang, adding as much heat as you want. Gochujang is another Korean staple that is made from a mix of chili paste and fermented soybeans. The same paste is used throughout various Korean dishes and is a main ingredient in that beloved kimchee. 

The stone bowl comes to you hot and sizzling, adding extra pizazz to your meal and extra crispiness to the rice. If you're familiar with the crunchy rice at the bottom of a pan, it's the same concept here. You get to scrape the crispy rice from the bowl and it makes eating this dish that much more fun. What's also unique about this dish is the addition of sauteed gosari, a wild fern. It tastes a lot like fiddleheads and adds a unique earthy flavor.  My only gripe is that the dish comes with a rather small portion of beef. I would have preferred slices of beef vs. the small cubed bits. 

J went with a spicy stir fry of squid, pork, and veggies called Ohsahm Bool Gohgee. This too came on a sizzling plate and side of white rice. While this dish echoed a lot of the ingredients from the other dishes, the sauce here was spicy and sweet almost like a BBQ sauce. We ended our meal with complimentary mini bottles of yakult. You've probably come across these tiny yogurt drinks at the Asian grocery store. I've never had them before and while it strangely smelled like my dentist's latex glove, it tasted like a citrusy lassi and wasn't too bad. 

Portions here are huge. Be prepared to feast. I'm looking forward to trying a hot pot, which seems perfect during this dreary winter of ours. And of course I'm looking forward to eating more of that homemade kimchi. 

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