He Said, He Said: Koreana


by Dave Bitkower ” . . . the restaurant doesn’t have to pay actual chefs.”

I would like to begin this review by apologizing for calling Davis an “ignorant slut” in this space last year. As Davis has demonstrated in numerous contexts, he is not ignorant; furthermore, I have been advised that the word “slut” is inappropriate for the RECORD.

After a few days of watching twenty-four hour news coverage of shark attacks made me inexplicably hungry for some cook-it-yourself meat, Davis and I, along with 20 or so friends, visited Koreana this week. Koreana is a greenish establishment near Inman Square which, although it is only a block or so away from a Taco Bell Express, was filled to capacity by 8 p.m. this Monday.

Koreana features both a standard dining room and a larger barbecue room, in which the tables are equipped with individual-sized grills. The basic principle behind Korean barbecue is that the restaurant doesn’t have to pay actual chefs and the paying customer is forced to cook the meat himself. (It is reported that a similar principle underlies many of the 1L professor assignments this year.) The meat-eaters in our group ordered a mixture of barbecue meats, which came raw in large platters. Although we did not venture much beyond “short rib” and “chicken,” those not satisfied with the anodyne sterility of contemporary urban life are free to order such delicacies as pig’s feet, cow’s intestine, and something called “vache folle de la maison.” The waitress then jacked up the tabletop flame and set us to work. Personally, the physical labor of grilling the meats conjured up not only my appetite but also poignant memories of working the farm back home on the Upper West Side. The vegetarian and kosher among us reported favorably on the stone-pot bibimbop and sushi/sashimi entrees. For appetizers, we had serviceable fried vegetarian dumplings, and a calamari-scallion pancake. We also ordered spicy rice cakes, which are pasta-like tubes of rice soaked in red pepper sauce, pleasing in both texture and flavor. Their shape can only be described as, in the words of the Roger Miller song, “short, but not too big or round,” a description that applies equally to my coauthor. The meal was nicely capped with an imported Korean beer whose name I forget.

Many of our faithful readers may already be asking themselves how Koreana compares with Seoul Food, the Korean storefront restaurant (which does not feature barbecue) on Mass Ave. up toward the Porter Exchange. I would say that Koreana has a slight edge. Although the standard dishes are basically equivalent, Koreana boasts a much larger menu, more comfortable dine-in décor, and significantly larger portions for similar prices. Seoul Food, however, is much closer, and the couple that owns and operates it are quite possibly the nicest people this side of the large square states out West.

by Davis Wang “…with a name like Koreana there are no surprises.”

Koreana is a memorable restaurant. There are no foreign words to trouble the tongue-tied, or confuse the less discerning. (There are a number of restaurants in New York’s Koreatown. But most of their signs have the ubiquitous “Won” in them, thus making them indistinguishable from each other.) Koreanna has little pretensions to the current fad of fusion. It does not truncate a surname like Vong (truncating surname very bad in Asia), appeal to a cheesy movie like Indochine, or concatenate two completely dissimilar concepts like Asia de Cuba. Nor does it adopt the self-indulgent snobbery of certain ethnic restaurants with obscure cultural referents that deter the uninitiated. Should one know that Shilla was a Korean kingdom, or that Changsho is a drab Chinese city? Neither is particularly helpful to the non-native. And of course there is the iconic Tasheng, the meaning of which remains undecipherable even to those familiar with various Chinese tongues. (I have, of course, not had occasion to delve into this riddle further, having forsworn rice in favor of potatoes some time ago.) But Koreana is so differently, refreshingly simple: Its very name completely and exhaustively descriptive of the type of the cuisine available. (As everyone knows, all Korean restaurants also serve Japanese sushi and Chinese gyoza and shiumai, and sometimes even spring rolls. The availability of such kindred dishes does not call for an addendum to the name.) If one were to carp, I suppose one could say that Koreana is not sufficiently informative because the name does not, like No. 9 Park (loyal readers will recall a review of that establishment in this paper, by this author and a more polite co-author, just a year and half ago!), contain the address of the place, and so one has no idea how to get there except by way of an exceptionally knowledgeable cabdriver. Of course, there is always room for improvement, but “Koreana, 154 Prospect Street (Between Broadway & Harvard)” seems a somewhat cumbersome title.

The bottom line with a name like Koreana is that, once one is there, there are no surprises. And indeed, there were none. There was kimchi, there was barbecue (beef, chicken and shrimp), there was rice in cute little shiny metal tins of circular shape. There was trafe everywhere. (The presence of trafe did present a wrinkle in an otherwise unsurprising evening. There was much discussion on how best to contain the contagion of trafe.) There were chopsticks, moist towellettes and forks and knives for those less adroit with wooden implements. And, of course there was the smell. The warm, embracing, pungent, penetrating fragrance of garlic that would stick the minute one entered and would linger for days to come. There were these rice noodles, of course, but I do not recall them being short and round. Rather, I recall them being longish and thinnish, but somewhat pudgy, doughy and extremely chewy. (Of course, I will not indulge in cross-authorial comparison here!).

As I have said before, there are no surprises. Koreana serves Korean food (as well as Japanese sushi, and Chinese gyoza and shiumai, and perhaps even spring rolls). It lives up to its name, and that is as far as it went. I have no idea whether it is better than Seoul Food (apparently a Korean restaurant with Louisiana influences), since I have never been to the latter. But I am quite sure that it is better than that nondescript hole in the wall, whose name I forget (it is right next to the Café of India), that is commonly referred to as the “Korean Deli,” though the owners of that establishment are quite proud that they have overcome and insist that it is no longer a deli.