A watchful reader alerted me to Sammi, a small Korean family effort in a strip mall in Troy, with a long menu and mostly Korean customers. (Readers, keep writing to me; if you're not related to the owners, I want your recommendations.)
Speaking of recommendations: How is anybody supposed to use Yelp? Every time I check it, as I did for Sammi (which doesn't have its own website), the reviews range from "best ____ in the state" to "the most disappointing ____ food experience of my life" (fill in blank with relevant cuisine). At Sammi the only thing Yelp reviewers agree on is the friendliness of the wait staff, but a minority is unhappy even about that (a waiter watched him eat).
I chalk it up to "people are different" and use Yelp just for checking whether a place is still open. But tell me if you know how to get info that helps.
Actually, one fact about Sammi that Yelpers agreed on was temperature. The food is hot, a product of being cooked in a stone bowl that does not lose its heat quickly. I'm not one who can sit in front of a dish and wait patiently. I kept attempting to take a bite and then doing that attractive thing where you open your mouth to let the steam out while trying to cover the cavity with your hand.
So occupy your cooling time with banchan or a pancake; I found my nakji dolsot still steaming as I was packing its leftovers into Styrofoam.
The other kind of hot is apparently an issue too. When we ordered a dish that was clearly marked "spicy" on the menu, the waitress verified, "spicy OK?" No one should be surprised that hot chili pepper paste is used in Korean cooking.
Banchan are little side dishes that accompany every meal. At Sammi you get at least four: crisp cold broccoli in red chili sauce; radishes; fish cakes; and lightly pickled cucumber, sweet and spicy. One night there was also a dish new to me — new in Korean restaurants, that is — a mayonnaise pasta salad with apples and raisins. Sort of Waldorf salad in Seoul?
Our favorite dishes were beef short ribs, bibimbap, seafood pancakes, and a noodle soup called dduk mandu gook. One night I was jonesing for gom gook, a beef noodle soup I was sure would be on the menu. But dduk mandu gook, which can include beef but does not at Sammi, turned out to be a good substitute. We all agreed there was something subtle but special about the soup's flavor: a mild beef broth with scallions, glass noodles, smooth-as-silk rice cakes and dumplings, plus an egg whose strands cooked in the broth.
I would guess that 75 percent of Westerners order some sort of pancake (jeon) at a Korean restaurant, and I'm not calling them wrong. Sammi's excellent version is the size of a medium pizza, eight big slices, with scallions and rather chewy octopus or squid grilled into the batter, and a good soy sauce on the side. Listed as an appetizer, it would be appropriate for a party of eight. Reheats well, though.
Beef short ribs, kalbi, were perfectly marinated in something sweet, and appeared to come from a very tiny cow, or perhaps from the short end of its short ribs. This was pretty similar to bulgogi, another Western favorite. It also comes as a stew (tang).
It's probably hard to mess up bibimbap unless you use really lousy ingredients. In Sammi's case, I would have appreciated more beef (you sense a trend here), but the combination of sizzling rice with seasoned vegetables and hot sauce, with an egg perfectly fried on top, cannot be beat. After mixing everything thoroughly before serving, our companion was careful to share out the egg among all of us, so no hard feelings. The hot stone pot (dolsot) creates a delicious crisp rice crust on the bottom, the same phenomenon paella makers call socarrat.
We were less pleased with two red rice dishes that mostly just tasted hot, with little subtlety. A pork-and-tofu dish, doobo kimchi jaeyook, was enough for both the pork lover and the tofu eater to share. The tofu had an excellent firm consistency, but the meat was tough-ish, its taste pretty well hidden by the kimchi. In an octopus-red-pepper-scallions-carrots-rice dish, nakji dolsot, the octopus was way chewy and the flavor mostly "hot," but it did boast a good socarrat and the consummate fried egg.
A simple kimchi stew, also made with pork and tofu, was better. But fried vegetable dumplings, the Korean version of a pupusa, could have used a more exciting filling and less grease.
Sammi is small and unpretentious in the extreme, but the decor is cheerful with chartreuse walls, yellow tables, and a raspberry pink divider. A world map drawn on one wall singles out Korea's latitude and longitude. All the easier to visit if you leave Sammi inspired.