At BG Korean Restaurant, the congee, the soup, the kimchi and other bangan (side dishes), the noodles and rice and barbecue can be brought to you in a small semiprivate room with light wooden tables and chairs. An attentive and well-informed server adds to the feeling that you’re being treated to a personal multicourse banquet. So does the fact that many of the dishes are brought unordered, as a matter of course.
Korean cuisine relies heavily on sticky rice and on seafood (look at a map), but also on noodles, garlic and beef. Your meal starts with an agreeable congee, which is made more appealing than “boiled rice gruel” by the use of fish stock. It’s eaten with a tiny spoon and is a good way to take the edge off, especially when it’s cold outside.
Next come four small white bowls of bangan: orange kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), dark green seaweed, ivory bean sprouts, and another orange vegetable, Korean, that our server was unable to translate. These are eaten with good-looking stainless steel jeotgarak (chopsticks) that seem much more sensible and distinctive than throwaway wooden or bamboo ones (much less plastic). One night we were served a bowl of miso as well.
Kimchi, served at every Korean meal, can also be made from radishes, cucumbers, even seafood or fruit. The main ingredient is mixed with salt, hot chiles, garlic, ginger and fish sauce and, traditionally, sealed in a stone jar to ferment. The result, as described on one ex-pat Web site I consulted, is that “most foreigners who try kimchi for the first time are generally not overly impressed with the taste.” Yes — fermentation creates something strong and pungent, sometimes with a high heat level. Personally, I haven’t eaten Korean food enough times to let kimchi grow on me, but it deserves a try. The seaweed and bean sprouts provide a cooling counterpoint.
The next course, appetizers (these you have to pay for), includes wonderful fried dumplings, their insides tasty if a bit gray and indiscriminate, their outsides just slightly crispy — melt in your mouth. We ordered an $8 seafood-scallion pancake, and after two people had picked at it a bit, it still provided leftovers for days. This is a hearty, lightly fried, mostly soft but somewhat crisp comfort food.
Soup is not an appetizer at BG. The $7 “Korean style wonton soup” we ordered was a big bowl of still-crunchy carrot shreds, spinach, scallions, rice noodles and huge wontons, nearly enough for a meal. Unlike Chinese and Japanese soups, it’s eaten with a long-handled metal spoon, called a sutgarak.
For a main course, we ordered bi bim bap — which has to be popular partly for its name, don’t you think? A heap of rice in a stone pot is surrounded by a tangle of carrots, zucchini and spicy ground beef — and when it comes to your table, a fried egg is still sizzling on top. It’s supposed to be mixed with a super-fiery ketchup-like sauce that was too much for me.
Less intimidating was jab chae, a mammoth serving of dark potato noodles with beef, red and green peppers, carrots, a few sesame seeds and a musky flavor.
But many Westerners, I’m guessing, go to Korean restaurants for the barbecue — or BBQ, as we’ve taught the world to say. For $11 per person for all you can eat, a tabletop grill is brought to your alcove, along with pretty flowered trays heaped with pork, chicken, beef and bacon. You flop manageable pieces onto the hot metal at your own pace, and they cook in a trice. The first three items are marinated, so that the chicken is dark red, the beef slightly sweet, the pork spicier (but not fiery). The bacon is unlike an American cut; the fat doesn’t melt away to nothing.
Korean cooking is known for its fire and its garlic. In BG’s dishes overall, the first was evident but the latter less so. When I asked our server about this, she said that the garlic was pulverized; but why would that lessen the impact? In any case, for true devotees, know that the owners, Mr. B and Mr. G, are from South Korea, where the food is sweeter than in the North.
BG is closed Wednesdays, but open till 2:30 a.m. six days a week. Open about a year, it’s two doors down from Naysa, another Korean barbecue place, and across the street from the Chinese Sun Hong, which displays a ready-to-grill goose in the front window. Just a hop from the bridge, it’s a neighborhood to explore the pleasures of Asians’ way with a grill.
Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.