Korean food can be as familiar to Americans as barbecue — or as alien as wine-marinated pork belly and cow’s feet. Rest assured, even the most unadventurous diner can find something to like.
Korean restaurants are fun because many entrées are grilled at your table, then assembled into lettuce-wrapped rolls that can include rice, a spicy sauce, and one or more of a half-dozen condiments.
The condiments are served in little white bowls that crowd the table; they can vary, but always include kimchi, a spicy-hot fermented Chinese cabbage. Among the others: a type of bland gelatin that is grain-based, shreds of radish, a spicy red miso paste, flank steak stewed with garlic and pepper and then shredded and served cold, peppery strips of seaweed, pickled zucchini, and a potato salad that is mashed with mayonnaise and dotted with bits of apples, peas and cucumber.
We shied away from the truly exotic, but enjoyed an appetizer called yook hwe, thinly sliced raw beef that is served icy cold. The meat sits on thinly sliced rounds of lemon and is sprinkled with pine nuts; mounds of julienned pears, cucumbers, and red peppers are scattered on the plate, as well as a raw egg yolk nestled in a flower carved from a cucumber. Our server then tossed together the separate ingredients, adding some spicy red miso paste from our assortment of condiments. He gestured and then waited for us to nod before adding in the egg yolk. The mix can be wrapped in a lettuce leaf or eaten with chopsticks.
Language can be a barrier, but think of it as an adventure or be reassured that you are having an authentic experience. Everyone’s friendly; one night the manager bounced a baby boy so his mom could eat.
Owner Don Kim is likely to stop by your table, and he will happily answer a myriad of questions. Kim says he decided to open his restaurant to introduce Americans to an Asian cuisine that is not widely available. Korean food, he says, is intricate — spicier than Chinese, heartier than Japanese.
What you get at Shilla is “just what you would eat in Asia,” says Kim. The Shilla dynasty (57 B.C.-A.D. 935) was a prosperous era in Korean history, noted for beautiful ornaments. Some examples can be seen in the restaurant’s display cases.
Like other local Korean restaurants, Shilla’s menu combines Korean with Japanese. This was done to increase the appeal of the restaurant, and because the cuisines complement each other. Begin with the more austere Japanese selections like sushi, suggests Don Kim, and then go on to more robust Korean entrées.
Bibim naeng myun is one of several noodle dishes. The noodles are “pressed” to order, directly into a pot of boiling water. They are served with cold sliced beef, chili sauce, hard-boiled egg, pears, cucumbers and scallions, mixed together at your table.
The co-diner is a sucker for anything that hints of abundant seafood. His choice of hae mul jim included chunks of stewed seafood (clams, mussels, crab, monkfish, shrimp) over a huge pile of bean sprouts spiced with chili sauce. The shrimp I tried was dry and crumbly.
One of the best things we ordered was simple: grilled short ribs. They are marinated in a sweet sauce and served with a plate of red lettuce for wrapping. It is fun to watch the grilling process. At Shilla, the servers hold one hand behind their back, and use the other to turn the meat with tongs. Usually a few vegetables are grilled alongside: perhaps a big round of onion, mushrooms, and green pepper. The vegetables are snipped into bite-sized pieces with a pair of kitchen shears.
The heat level is moderate in most dishes designated as “spicy.” Wine, beer and sake are available.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].