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Wednesday, February 8,2012

Seoul food

Don’t let first impressions fool you: Korea House is well worth visiting

by Joe Torok

Korea House is modestly situated along the western face of the Trowbridge Plaza. Mirrored window film gives the exterior a distinctive, though opaque, look. One is happy to read the black sign with orange lettering near the door with the reassuring message, “Yes, We are Open.”

Like the exterior, the interior is modest with minimal décor, save for the sushi bar. An alcove of blonde woodwork surrounds Japanese artifacts and a glass case filled with the oranges, greens and reds of sushi cuisine.

The sushi bar is an oasis in an otherwise dumpy environ; elsewhere, cobwebs, ripped paper square window coverings and an overall sense of dinginess (not helped by bins full of dirty dishes wheeled throughout the dining room and parked next to your meal while a multitasking waitress busses her own tables) could be a major turn-off. But we came for the food.

Our party of three (plus a precocious 17-month old) decided on an appetizer and three entrées, the total of which came to less than $50, including tip.

Korea House serves meals with banchan, complimentary side dishes that, in past experiences, were served before the main course arrives. Banchan at Korea House includes a few kimchis (including the well-known napa cabbage version and two different kinds of radish), bean sprouts and a seaweed salad. 

Our banchan were brought out, along with the appetizer and three entrées all at once. It was a beautiful array of colors and smells, but dining becomes unwieldy with so much to maneuver on the table.  

We originally wanted the kim bob seaweed roll as an appetizer, but the sushi chef was away, so we went with the stir-fried rice cakes instead. Little cylindrical rice cakes, with a firm, doughy texture, mixed with small slices of tofu and julienned vegetables in a thick, mildly spicy chili sauce. The heat of this dish contrasted nicely with the cold, piquant kimchis.

We eschewed the bulgogi and kalbi dishes — highly popular marinated beef entrées with a house sauce — which we had enjoyed in past visits to Korea House. We knew they were good.

Our first choice was the tang-su yuk, a house specialty made with sweet and sour pork. Breaded strips of pork were combined with fresh vegetables, pineapple and raisins over a near-gelatinous sweet and sour sauce.  Gently acidic from the pineapple and other elements with a touch of sweetness punctuated by the raisins, the dish pleased my companions. The best part, to my palate, were the crunchy cucumber chunks that, when covered in the sauce, transformed into fresh pickles.

Like the kalbi and bulgogi, the jab-che was something we had ordered in the past, but we found it impossible to resist on this trip. A mound of crystal-clear noodles mixes with marinated strips of shredded beef, mushrooms, onions and other vegetables. It’s savory in nature, but there’s just a hint of sweetness that adds a layer of complexity. And the clear, springy noodles are fun, too, for both toddlers and adults.

For our final dish, we went with a bibimbap, roughly translatable as mixed rice. It’s a dish so popular in Korea that the recipe can be found on the official Seoul tourism website.  

We went with Korea House’s dol-sot bibim bop, served sizzling in a stone bowl. Strips of dark green lettuce cover an over-easy fried egg that rests on crunchy bean sprouts, slices of zucchini, marinated beef and seaweed seasoned with sesame. White rice lines the bowl and acts as a bed in which everything becomes mixed together. 

It’s not a dish that exploded with flavor, but even a half-hour into the meal the stone bowl remained warm, almost hot to the touch. And that explains my favorite part of bibimbap: The rice along the sides of the bowl browns and turns crispy. That rice is hard to separate from the bowl with chopsticks alone, but it’s worth it when you do.

The service at Korea House wasn’t of the same caliber as the food during our visit. All the food was prepared quickly, a plus in some people’s book, but it arrived all at once.

Halfway through our meal we were politely approached with our bill, and asked I we could settle that as shifts were changing. We understood, but the interruption, along with a server lingering until a credit card was fished out of a wallet, didn’t make for the most ideal dining experience, to be polite.

Korea House could use a makeover — or at least a good spring cleaning—and the service might be spotty. But if you want an interesting, delicious culinary experience, expect Korea House to deliver.

Korea House

978 Trowbridge Road, East Lansing

(517) 332-0608

11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday

12:15-9 p.m. Sunday

TO, OM, $$$


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