In Korea, before the meal, always tell your hostess: “Jal muk get sup ni da (I will have a good meal).” After the meal, you say: “Jal muk ut sup ni da (I had a good meal).”
One Korean custom that elevates even a simple meal to a feast is the array of condiments that fill your table. Served in simple white bowls, these vary from the fiery fermented napa cabbage called kimchi to a potato salad where the potatoes are mashed and studded with diced carrots, cucumbers and apples. On the two nights that we ate at New Seoul Garden, the condiments varied but there were at least 10. I loved the soybean sprouts tossed with sesame oil, while the mung bean sprouts had a more vinegary dressing. Silver dollar-sized pancakes were filled with bits of scallions and red peppers. Green beans were served cold with sesame seeds. Daikon radish was shredded and tossed with carrot strips in a sweet dressing. There was a bowl of seasoned spinach and another of pickled turnips.
New Seoul Garden serves both Japanese and Korean food; we focused on the Korean dishes. We began with pajun, which is described as a pancake on the menu, but with more eggs and less flour than American pancakes. It was full of scallions and diced bits of shrimp, squid and octopus.
Chap-chae ($10) is a stir-fry of vermicelli and tiny shards of beef with broccoli, wood ears, carrot shreds, scallions, red pepper and cabbage. Like many Korean dishes, this was flavored with sesame oil, which has a distinctive, smoky flavor. For my taste, there was a little too much going on; I preferred the co-diner’s yookhwe bibimbap ($13). Unlike traditional bibimbap which is served in a hot stone bowl that cooks the food as you stir it up with a raw egg, this version is made of seasoned raw beef, sliced as thin as spaghetti, served with shredded carrot on a bed of lettuce. A bowl of chili sauce is served alongside, and our server showed us how to toss the beef and vegetables with the sauce. The co-diner thought the sauce too similar to ketchup.
On another evening we ordered the barbecue combination special ($22 per person, minimum of two), which comes with a simple soup of beef broth with scallions and green seaweed, an appetizer of gyoza (dumplings filled with ground beef, then pan-fried) and shumai (steamed dumplings, stuffed with minced shrimp), as well as dessert. The barbecue includes bulgogi (thin slices of beef), kalbi (cubes of boneless short ribs), saewu-gui (shrimp) and dak-gui (boneless chicken breast). All are marinated in a liquid that includes soy sauce, garlic, sugar and sesame oil.
The fun begins when the hood is lifted from the grill that is set into the table. Then its copper surface is heated up and your server begins to cook. You can eat the meat plain, dipped in soy-based sauce, or wrapped in a leaf of lettuce, dabbed with a spicy ground soybean paste. Either way, it’s delicious.
For dessert, go for the Japanese ice cream, a real treat, whether you choose green tea, red bean or ginger. I was delighted to see tempura ice cream on the menu, something I remember from a trip to San Francisco many years ago. I remember a crispy crust contrasting with the cold ice cream, opposites as perfectly balanced as yin and yang. Here, a ball of vanilla ice cream is insulated with a wrapping of pound cake, then dipped in tempura batter and fried. Instead of that perfect balance, it was clunky and heavy.
Although New Seoul Garden has been holding down the fort for 10 years, Korean food remains underrepresented in metro Detroit. The restaurant seems to be a gathering place for the Korean community, with Korean newspapers available; it’s a popular place to celebrate birthdays (we witnessed three). There is a full bar, a sushi bar, and tatami rooms with bright silk cushions to sit on.
And, yes, jal muk ut sup ni da.
Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.