With its appetite for fermentation and fearsome creatures like the loach, Korean must be among the earthiest cuisines on the planet. Enter Sura, a new restaurant at the Temescal end of Oakland's kimchi row, which emphasizes the lighter aspects of a cooking style famous for its embrace of the fusty, and even in the case of kimchi cured the traditional way the subterranean. Sura's food can seem downright shimmery by contrast, even as its enormous dining room, a former post office, feels dolled up to the point of girliness.
Well, perhaps more mature than girly. Okay, decidedly ladylike, what with scarves resembling gauzy pashminas over the skylights, ceiling fixtures like glittery brooches, and, across what seems like acres of wallpaper, a mesmerizing pattern of pink magnolia blossoms. Even the menus are bound with the kind of brocaded fabric that has the faint whiff of the aging drag queen's handbag. But instead of smelling like lipstick and Certs, Sura is fragrant with pickled daikon and the residue of meat cooked on tabletop grills.
No doubt Theresa Lee was shooting for queenly, not queeny. Eight years ago, the owner ran an Italian deli on Piedmont Avenue. She chucked panini in favor of dishes with royal roots. "Sura," she says, translates as "a king's meal" Lee says she researched dishes that rulers of Korea's sprawling Joseon Dynasty might have chowed down on. If she's right, the old kings had tastes remarkably similar to those of modern-day office workers.
Don't expect a stone bowl glowing with lava heat: Lee's jeon ju bee bim bop is an aggregate of mostly cold elements, arranged in heaps in a wide ceramic bowl. Just like regular bee bim bop a hodgepodge of rice, veggies, and usually meat the centerpiece of this version a runny egg, its white fried crisp, Asian style. The supporting piles have a mostly summery brightness: boiled and wrung-out spinach, fat fingers of mung jelly, strips of golden zucchini tossed with toasted sesame oil, and thin slices of pan-fried beef heavily doctored with soy, which, besides the egg, are the only warm things in the bowl. Some ten elements in all, not counting the foundation of leafy lettuce. Stir it all up, mix in a healthy dollop of the chile paste known as koch'u jang, and you just might feel you've hit on some breezy Cali adaptation of a Korean standby that's too often stodgy.
Lee and her cooks have a light touch. On some days, even the banchan the aggregate of changeable little bites that lend any Korean meal the charm of a picnic can feel West Coast lite. At lunch recently, the spread showed off the pastoral hues of a Peeps assortment: pink pickled daikon, yellow omelet, orange mung jelly, even an ivory clump of deliciously cold mashed tofu. There wasn't a dried anchovy in sight.
Still, the menu doesn't stray far from standard proteins. That includes the barbecue combo. At just under thirty bucks, it's far from cheap. It does, however, deliver the flesh. The platter of raw meatstuffs is disturbing in the extent of its carnage: hunks of short ribs, pork belly, and watermelon-pink rolls of thin, thin beef flank.
In my own private fantasy, all meat would have to grill over lump charcoal. By law, I mean. In the meantime, Sura's gas-fired tabletop grills do a merely adequate job. Even if the restaurant's servers, a multigenerational clan of women, can break down over the process.
Our server one night had the take-no-crap attitude of your high school stoner buddy's skeptical mom. First she chided us for not turning the meat, and then snatched the tongs from our hands when we tried. She crowded thick onion slices on the grill, and practically ordered us to eat them. They were delicious rolled up in lettuce leaves with pieces of grilled pork, shreds of kimchi, and smudges of miso-like doenjang.
The short ribs had an overarching meatiness the taste of browned fat unmarred by excessive salt, always a risk for proteins that soak up personality via soy sauce marinades. The marinated meats of the hefty combo had the soft sheen of understatement like a lot of things that emerge from Sura's frilly, curtained kitchen doorway.
Even a bokkeum, a Korean stir-fry stained chorizo-red with chile paste, had a sweet little balance of flavors that survived its trial by capsicum fire. O sam bul go gie was also deft at balancing what might have been a freaky coming-together of textures. In lesser hands, the juxtaposition of baby octopus and pork belly could turn nasty: excessively rubbery, fatty, or eerily cartilaginous. Turns out a many-tentacled sea critter has quite a lot to say to the well-marbled midsection of a farm animal, so long as they meet in some precise state between flabby and too firm.
Nicely orchestrated textures also carried the potsticker-like ravioli called chin mon doo. The wrappers went silky and tender in the steamer, and the filling of finely hashed pork cooked up light and loose, without veering off into the state of fatally crumbly.
Were there stumbles? Hell, yeah. A dish of grilled chicken called dak galbi (cooked in the kitchen) was salty and cottony, a victim of marinade overkill. Even a big mess of expensive whole prawns, sae woo gu e, was essentially a waste. The prawns arrived at the table semi-pink, only partially cooked on a marblelike platter packed with hot rock salt. But hectoring mom threw them on the grill, where they quickly hardened to a desiccated state of thirty-dollar disappointment.
A technically free dish at least partly made up for the loss. It was the banchan du jour one night: half a delicate little crab that was essentially raw, long marinated in chile paste and sesame oil. It was fascinating and sticky, filled with small shreds of transparent flesh you could suck through thin legs where the claws had been snipped off.
For such a small thing, it preserved a surprisingly big whiff of the sea. Even mucking around in the depths of a seriously earthy cuisine, Sura has a way of pulling off pretty.
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