The number-one special on Sahn Maru's menu, "black goat stew with house sauce," came in a stoneware bowl so hot its murky brown contents bubbled for five minutes after it reached the table. It looked forbidding. Dangerous. Evil. It was one of the most exciting dishes I've tasted all year.
As the ominous bubbling subsided, the owner stopped by our table to teach us how to eat the stew. He poured a little rice-wine vinegar into a small plate containing dabs of black sesame paste, chile paste, and Korean mustard, then mixed the three dabs together into a salty, sour, horseradishy meta-paste. "Here," he says. "Roll the goat in this."
We reached into the broth, thickened with cracked mustard and what the owner's daughter calls "a complex mix of spices," none of which she could describe in English, and pulled out long strips of goat edged with fat. The long-braised goat tasted like goat -- there was no attempt to dumb down its gaminess. The broth was so fragrant and sweat-inducingly spicy I could take only small sips. And the sesame leaves in the stew, which look like cooked spinach, had a soapy, almost cloying quality that reminded me of my relationship with cilantro. First put off by the leaves' flavor, after repeated exposure I grew to anticipate their taste. Then welcomed it. Then craved it. Combined, the flavor of the meat, leaves, broth, and dipping sauce stormed across my palate like a Category Five.
Hyung Yoo and his wife Yoon, owners of the five-month-old restaurant, brought the recipe for the goat stew from Seoul, where their restaurant specialized in it for 25 years. Sahn Maru first opened up in San Francisco, but after about sixteen months moved over to Oakland's Seoul-food strip -- Telegraph Avenue between 20th and 45th streets -- taking over the old Happy Family noodle restaurant.
The stew, and many of the other dishes on Sahn Maru's specials page, are not to be found elsewhere in Oakland. The rest of the restaurant's six-page menu, however, covers all the bases of American-friendly Korean cuisine, from barbecue to bi bim bap. Unlike its neighbor across the street, Koryo Wooden Charcoal Barbecue, the new restaurant doesn't do tableside grilling. No charcoal grates or electric grills sur la table means no eau de campfire on your clothes.
Their absence should also clue you in that barbecued meats are not the restaurant's specialty. Stews and soups are. All of our stews were cooked in the kitchen and served in the great bowls of fire, but on my first night we saw the servers set up burners and large silver pots at a couple of big-party tables. The waiters stirred and sniffed as the pots heated and the customers nibbled on side dishes.
"What comes in the big pots?" I asked our waiter. "They've ordered the same as you, but for two or more people," she said. The same deal applies to other stews on the specials page, like the spicy pork with sweet potatoes.
A duck stew with sesame leaves we ordered on our second visit was made with the same mustardy broth. However, the duck meat toughened up in the stew instead of tenderizing, and didn't require dipping sauce -- it just couldn't compete with the goat. Sahn Maru's menu also lists a variety of soon, or soft-tofu stews. Over the past five years, a dozen or so restaurants specializing in soon have opened up around the Bay Area, several on the Seoul-food strip. Based on the kimchi tofu stew we ordered, Sahn Maru's soon stacks up to the fare of these specialty houses. The broth of some tofu stews tastes thin, barely more than chile paste and garlic in water, but Sahn Maru's three-alarm broth was voluptuously seasoned. The fluffy curds of bland, white tofu offered slight respite from the onslaught.
The tiny white dishes that orbit the larger entrées like moons are half the fun of eating Korean food. Sahn Maru's panchan were plentiful and often exquisite: fresh cucumber pickle dressed in sweet chile paste, crunchy shreds of dried black seaweed, cabbage and daikon kimchi, spicy daikon threads. The mashed-potato salad with apple chunks was as mysteriously bland as always, the green-bean jelly a textural thrill, unspoiled by flavor or scent. But the slices of spongy fish cake actually tasted of the sea, not like sugared-up tofu. And the minuscule dried anchovies dressed with chile paste and onions proved as addictive as popcorn.
But outside these two areas of expertise, the quality of Sahn Maru's food varied. The jap chae, elastic, transparent yam-paste noodles sautéed with garlic, black pepper, and a sweetish soy sauce, contained just a few slivers of beef and a couple of vegetables. I found its flavor lackluster, tainted by the scent of oxidized garlic. Another house specialty, steamed bulkoki with rice cake, was an intellectually interesting variation on the well-known grilled, thinly sliced beef. But without the smoke and charring of the grill, the sweet marinade on the beef overpowered its natural meatiness. I enjoyed the dense marshmallow texture of the rice cakes, but no one around me did.
However, the simplest dish on the table -- described as pan-fried king fish -- made a strong impression on all my companions. The trout-sized fish, almost as oily as mackerel but without its pungency, was slashed and deep-fried. The skin browned and crisped in the oil, but not so the flesh inside -- and all it needed was a squirt of lemon. The single barbecued dish we tried, spicy pork bulkoki, arrived on a sizzle plate with barely a charred edge or lick of grill smoke; it could only be described as pleasant.
In the classic dish oh jing uh bok kum, strips of a slightly chewier cousin of squid were sautéed in a sweet red-pepper paste that also saturated, to good effect, a mess of vegetables. After all those chiles and fermented things, each meal ended with a teacup of cinnamon-flavored sugar water, with a couple of dried red dates and pine nuts floating on top.
Even calculating in the fact that you receive fourteen million side dishes with your entrées, Sahn Maru's prices are on the higher end. As compensation, the new owners have dressed up both the space and the waitstaff. They've installed tables made of single slabs of wood -- ancient trees, thicker than doors -- transparently varnished so the knots and whorls show through. They set each place with slim, shiny stainless-steel spoons and chopsticks. Scanning the redecorated room, you may notice a certain delight in the curviness of the human rump, showcased in terracotta and carved-wood figures.
The waitstaff, who wear traditional Korean garb, a kimono-kulat combo, and running shoes, provided some of the best service I've ever received in a Korean restaurant. Led by Mr. Yoo, they returned frequently to check on our table, enthusiastically directed us beyond proven foreign-person favorites, smiled on a regular basis, and actually offered to refill our panchan instead of waiting for us to ask (you knew you could get free refills on your favorite sides, didn't you?).
Anselme Brillat-Savarin once wrote, "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star." Well, like a star, Sahn Maru's number-one black goat stew has been floating about the universe for ages, but while I doubt my discovery of it will do much for the human race, it has enriched the happiness of my tastebuds immeasurably.