When I was asked to visit Tokyo Seoul on Erie Boulevard East, my first thought was, “What is this Asian restaurant going to have to offer that is different?” Well, the answer is Korean barbecue. So it only made perfect sense to invite my Japanese-American niece and nephew to come along for a Friday-night dinner. Kidding. Being 17 and 13 years old, they were initially unenthusiastic since teenage ennui is universal, but once we arrived the excitement grew because, as it turns out, “Yakiniku” (Korean barbecue in Japanese) is fun.
I confess that I have dined at Tokyo Seoul in the past and honestly never paid any attention to the “Seoul” part, in spite of the fact that the restaurant has been there for 21 years. We had enjoyed the teppanyaki, sushi and bento boxes before, but missed the entire room devoted to Korean barbecue. Don’t make the same mistake. We were seated by Pete Dsay from Thailand and warmly greeted by the owner, Mrs. Kim (as she prefers to be called). She could not stay with us for too long that evening because she was busy ensuring all of her customers were having a great time and were well taken care of. That includes the folks who came to an Asian restaurant with a sesame allergy. Good luck with that one.
For Korean barbecue, you will be seated at a table with a sunken grill in the middle. No air pollution here, as all the cooking fumes are sucked back into the hole in the table. If you are feeling lazy, the kitchen will cook your barbecue for you there, but that would defeat the purpose.
Before we got to the grillin’, Pete recommended we start with mandoo: pan-fried beef dumplings. These are thin, very crispy half-moons with a beef filling, and they are delicious. His second recommendation was hae mul pajun. Don’t miss this one. It’s a seafood pancake that is about 14 inches across and really tasty. It was crisp and not spicy, with carrots, scallions, dehydrated shrimp and something chewy. My niece said squid. I said not. She was right.
Next came the side dishes: classic kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage), marinated daikon, cucumber, bean sprouts, seaweed, potatoes and fish cakes. The fish cakes were these soft, warm, squishy chunks that made up in yummy for what they might have lacked in appearance or description. My nephew devoured his portion, my portion and the additional portions Pete brought out more for him.
Mounds of lovely green leaf lettuce came to the table next. We had ordered barbecue samplers so that we had Kalbi (short rib), Bulgogi (rib-eye steak), Jae Yook Gui (pork), chicken Bulgogi, Saw Woo Gui (shrimp) and scallops to try. These various proteins were cooked in turn, along with onions and mushrooms. Remember to put your best chef in the middle of the table. When your food is cooked, you grab a lettuce leaf, pour on some bean sauce, add rice and pile on the barbecue. Then dig into this fairly low-carb treat.
The various marinades the meats started out in form a lovely char on the grill that is meant to be enjoyed with your meal, sort of like fighting for the crispy bottom in a pot of arroz con pollo. Crispy goodness can be universal, too. At this point you will be a sticky diner and will have to excuse yourself to wash your hands.
Come back to the table, though, for Bi Bim Bap in a stone pot. The stone pot keeps this classic Korean dish sizzling hot for a long time. The dish translates to “mixed rice” and is a meal of rice covered with sautéed vegetables, egg and the meat of your choice. It comes with a sauce that is spicy but a little sweet. Add that in, stir it around and comfort yourself.
We were next showered with desserts like mochi ice cream and melon ice pops. For the uninitiated, mochi ice cream is a Japanese confection; a bite-sized ball made from pounded rice cake that surrounds a filling of ice cream. Sometimes green tea ice cream, sometimes vanilla, and very different if you have never tried it. Your front teeth will leave a mark when you take a bite and you’ll find yourself chewing on ice cream, if you can imagine that.
Mrs. Kim was really taken with my niece and nephew and the fact that
they spoke Japanese. She introduced them to the Japanese sushi chef, a
16-year veteran of the restaurant that everyone calls “Ricky.” When she
learned it was my nephew’s birthday in two days (really, I swear) more
ice cream came out, candle included, and “Happy Birthday to You” was
belted out to a kid that didn’t understand the words but appreciated the
sentiment. Wanting to encourage his English, Mrs. Kim asked him how old
he was. “Thirteen,” he replied. She requested that he ask her a
question, so he did: “How old are you?” Serves her right.
Tokyo Seoul, 3180 Erie Blvd. E., DeWitt, is open for lunch Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For dinner, Tuesdays to Thursdays, 4:30 to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Sundays, 1 to 9 p.m. Check tokyoseoulrestaurant.com before you go for coupons and specials. 449-2688.