Well, that’s my opinion. I don’t know if my dining partner felt the same way. Last night we met up at Place de la Bastille and strolled leisurely up the rue des Tournelles to a restaurant we’d never been to before: Soon Grill. It’s Korean, and they purportedly specialize in barbecued meat. It was a gorgeous evening, weather-wise, and the rue des Tournelles, indeed the whole of the 3rd arrondissement, is a treasure trove of new discoveries and old finds, constantly renewing itself.
We got there at 7 pm – very early for dinner in France, but the place filled up pretty fast. Never having eaten Korean before, I didn’t really know what to expect. Bigger portions? Better quality meat? More food? I had difficulty eating with the chopsticks, not because they were chopsticks but because they were metal – brass, I think – and unwieldly. I ended up eating with my fingers.
I thought it was a bit theatrical (gimmicky), the grilling of the steak on a small electric grill built right into the table. A server came to cut up the meat and throw some mushrooms and onions onto the grill. Then she left. Was she coming back? Did we have to tend to the grilling of the meat ourselves? And why was there so much lettuce? Tiny brass bowls filled with unidentified foods and spices were scattered here and there. We had to ask what they were.
This couple came with their dog. I would have gladly given it the bits of my meat that were very tough. At least the wine was good. We drank a bourgueil from the Loire Valley.
At meal’s end I was starved. All I had eaten were a few tiny raviolis, some shrimp, some grisly meat and a whole lot of lettuce leaves. I ordered dessert and an espresso.
Et voilà. This is what we paid for the privilege.
We walked back to the party-like atmosphere of the Place de la Bastille, sat on the terrace of a bar and I ordered a G&T (gin and tonic). I would’ve gladly eaten a ham and cheese baguette sandwich had one been on offer.
Too bad you had such a poor experience. Here in Chicago there are dozens of Korean restaurants. Those we have tried have ranged from good to excellent. As for the specifics of your experience, self grilling at table is not uncommon for Korean restaurants. That you received no instructions is not necessarily odd, but you should have asked for some help to get started. As for the array of condiments, that too is common in Korean dining. The condiments range from the uber spicy Kim Chi (Pickled cabbage with peppery accents) to milder vegtables and greens. The idea is to take the condiments you like to expand the taste experience. I do hope you will try Korean food again, perhaps at another restaurant. We always look for local ethnics who are eating, for us always a good sign of authenticity.
During my working life, I was among other things, a restaurant critic. Here is an example of how Korean food is served in Chicago
WOO LAE OAK K/R 17/20
CHICAGO NEAR NORTH $$
WOO LAE OAK is dignified and handsomely designed with a sense of restraint that is carried through in the preparation of its menu. Though Korean food is noted for a sense of peppery spiciness, as exemplified by the pickled cabbage called kim chi, seasonings are in a general balance with one another. Thus, something may be hot in spiciness, but it will not shock the palate.
The menu and servers appear to assume that diners have experience with the cuisine. The restaurant seems geared toward catering to visiting Korean business people or tourists as much as it does Americans. That’s a good sign, suggesting authenticity.
Korean dining is not difficult even for the neophyte. Begin with a combination platter of appetizers which brings portions of Korean style meatballs, shrimp, stuffed peppers with ground beef and strips of fish. The only problem is that everything is given an egg batter wash and fried.
For variety, add an order of what the menu describes as “Nine kinds of hors d’oeuvres”, but which really are five crepe like pancakes, rolled into fingers and filled with a quartet of ingredients. I guess that adds up to nine.
Much of Korean dining involves a style of barbecuing at table. The tables at WOO LAE OAK have a center well, which when uncovered, reveals a gas fired cooker where meats, fish and vegetables are grilled. Beef dishes are especially popular. Bul go ki is as important to Korean dining as prime rib of beef might be to Americans. Among other choices are short ribs called, Kal Bi, various varieties of organ meats plus chicken, pork and assorted vegetables.
Korean hot pots are savory dishes, a way to serve delicious soups or stews. Ingredients will vary from different kinds of meat to vegetables, all slowly simmered at your table. WOO LAE OAK rounds out its menu with some basic Korean staples including Bi Bim Bap, a rice casserole with vegetables and a fried egg mixed in with slices of beef. A variation is served in a large ceramic stone hot pot. Other selections include Chop Chae, a preparation of translucent rice noodles with beef and vegetables in a spicy sweet sauce, Korean pancakes filled with scallions, bits of oyster and seasonings and a delicious spicy codfish stew with tofu and vegetables.
HOSPITALITY 4/5 DECOR 4/4 FOOD 8/10 VALUE 1/1
WOO LAE OAK 30 West Hubbard Street, Chicago;
PHONE: 312-645-0605; HOURS: Mon-Sun 1130a-1030p; CREDIT CARDS: AMEX, MC, VISA ; Full service bar; Reservations suggested; Small Smoking section; Free valet parking; Private party facilities for 18 people; TROUBLESHOOTER: Mr. Siyoung Chung (Owner)
Nothing was explained to us, Sherman. And the assortment of food on offer was slim (nothing like what you wrote in your review.) We were two neophytes faced with a table of food, lettuce leaves and spices, and we didn’t know what to do with them. Plus, the quality of the meat wasn’t good. There are too many other restaurants to return to and explore, I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to return to this one.
Granted one bad “pomme”, I hope you will not write off all Korean dining…:-). It really can be very good.
Très amusant ! J’adore.
This is very funny. I can’t wait for your memoir to come out.
Thanks, PC. And I can’t wait to finish it!