Joe called me up the day after we went out to Jong Ga House on Grand Avenue in Oakland. "You know, I've been thinking about the meal last night. While we were eating it, I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, this is so good.' But when I think back on some of the main dishes, I hardly remember them. Like that fish stew -- I didn't eat that much of it."
"We were so stuffed by the time it arrived that we didn't want to eat it," I reminded him.
I've never walked out of a Korean restaurant "pleasantly full" -- or for that matter, anything short of painfully bloated. My problem is a short attention span. When I sit at a table filled with tens of those little dishes (known as ban chan), all of them brightly colored and pungent and texturally varied, I can't help myself. Delight drives me from little side dish to little side dish, and then back to the entrées for a while because I feel like I should focus on the food I actually ordered.
I faced a particularly difficult challenge at Jong Ga House. Jong Ga House is owned by Ms. Mi Cha Oh, who originally hails from Seoul. It serves a phenomenal amount of food for both lunch and dinner (cheapskates should consider the weekday lunches for $6.95-7.95). Dinner entrées, priced anywhere from $8.95 to $19.95, include rice, soup, and a dozen side dishes.
On my dinner visits, we started out both meals with bowls of cold kimchi soup with noodles. I'm accustomed to receiving a pleasantly bland clear beef broth with chunks of seaweed and daikon. But this summery soup, spicy and tangy from the juice of chile-laden pickled vegetables, contained crunchy greens, scallions, and ice cubes.
Even though I knew better, I insisted we order an appetizer on both visits. On my first visit my companions and I unwisely devoured a large platter of fried vegetables before the entrées arrived. Clumps of shredded zucchini, carrot, and onion were dipped in a simple tempura-style flour batter and deep-fried. The moisture from the vegetables kept the batter from staying crisp, but the bundles came with an addictive dipping sauce of soy, scallion, vinegar, and smoky-tasting fermented chile paste. On my second visit we dipped vegetable pancakes in the same sauce. We had supposedly ordered the pancakes with beef and vegetables, but I didn't taste a scrap of cow. The golden four-inch rounds of ground mung beans and wheat flour were studded with red chiles, onions, and scallions and pan-fried until the outside got crunchy.
On both visits I asked for advice from the servers, and they did a good job of steering us toward unfamiliar dishes we liked. One even did something I've never before experienced in a Korean restaurant: She asked us how spicy we would like the food. (Fearing the worst, we asked for "medium" and got milder than spicy.)
Joe was right about one thing: The ensemble was greater than its parts. Few Korean restaurants that I've visited have matched Jong Ga House for freshness and vivid seasoning, coupled with excellent service. Looking back on my two meals, though, a couple of the main entrées tasted pleasant rather than amazing. Both were the dishes non-Koreans probably know best.
The tender bul go gee disappeared from the plate, but the thin slices of broiled beef hadn't been marinated in garlic, soy, rice wine, and sugar for long enough to make the flavors explode. I missed all the fixings that usually accompany it -- lettuce leaves, fresh garlic cloves, and dark miso paste -- especially since I saw them on other tables. I love to make lettuce rolls containing rice, kimchi, beef, garlic, and the salty miso.
On my second visit, I had the same feelings about our jab chae boke um -- usually a good counterpart to a table full of spicy food. Translucent, elastic "low-calorie" bean-thread noodles are sautéed with beef, scallions, zucchini, wood ear fungus, and carrots in a mild, lightly sweet sesame-oil sauce with black pepper. Normally, jab chae is a lively dish of contrasting textures, but most of the beef and veggies were missing from this version, leaving a savory but one-note mass of noodles.
But those were the exceptions. My veggie companion had two choices: veggie bi bim bap or "mixed vegetables and tofu." Tired of vegetarian bi bim bap -- a large stone bowl of rice, colorful piles of vegetables, and a fried egg ("that's all I ever get to order in Korean restaurants") -- he chose the latter: a red and green mountain of vegetables -- onions, scallions, zucchini, baby bok choy, carrots, mushrooms -- coated with a sauce dominated by red chile paste and a sweet miso-like bean paste, spicy but with no sharp edges. The sauce gave the dish a depth that simple stir-fried vegetarian dishes rarely have.
"Don't touch this," warned our waiter as he placed a stone bowl full of furiously boiling sea bass stew on our table. "If you touch it your finger will stick to the bowl." He grimaced with the pain of someone who has made that mistake before. The stew didn't quiet down for three or four minutes, so we knew he was telling the truth. In a thin, tear-inducing red broth floated thick chunks of sea bass, tofu, and several bits of greenery.
On my second visit, we ordered a Jong Ga House special: min uh jjim and dhan jang jjige, or boiled-down croaker (replaced with sea bass) plus bean-paste stew. We got a small stone bowl, once again sizzling hot, containing a spicy fermented-soybean-flavored broth replete with chunks of onion and scallion, daikon, mushrooms, and niblets of beef. We sipped it as we prepared to dive into the large slices of braised sea bass fillet -- almost double the portion at most restaurants -- resting atop thick rounds of braised daikon. As with the seafood soup, the fish melted as soon as a chopstick could touch it. Surprisingly, its mild flavor shone through the bright red, oily sauce.
But, as always, I saved myself for the superb ban chan. I counted thirteen tiny bowls on one night, along with rice bowls, soup bowls, and entrées. We could barely see the nine square feet of table under all that china. And that was a dinner for two. A few highlights: sharp, hot, cabbage kimchi with no off-flavors; a dark-green mound of shredded, dried seaweed mixed with sesame oil and chiles; bright red chunks of fermented daikon pickle; tiny dried minnows, crunchy and fishy; cubes of translucent mung-bean gelatin dressed in sesame oil and seeds. The only one we passed up? A shredded carrot and raisin salad overdressed in mayonnaise. On both visits we cleared away as much as we could.
The restaurant looks like the interior of a Japanese country inn. Latticed rosewood rafters cover the walls and ceiling. An elaborate bar decorated with latticed screens is stocked with wines, Korean beers, and the Korean equivalent of sake, cheongju. Small stainless-steel plates in the center of each table can be removed so that a charcoal brazier may be installed; however, I didn't see anyone grilling their meat at table, so barbecue doesn't seem to be the major draw.
We ended the meal with small glass bowls of a clear, sweet liquid with little nubbins of overcooked rice in the bottoms. It tasted of honey and brown rice, with a slightly tart start. We couldn't have faced anything else. After a meal like that, even water tasted rich.
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