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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Forget the Bistro. The Most Personal Cooking in Town is at To Hyang

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 2010 at 10:09 AM

click to enlarge Even the panchan sparkle. - A W./YELP
  • A W./Yelp
  • Even the panchan sparkle.
Quick: Name the most deeply felt, auteur-driven, DIY-committed restaurant you can think of. Canteen? Nope. Commis? #fail. French Laundry? Please. Try a 30-seat Korean place in the Inner Richmond called To Hyang.

In today's "Eat" column, SF Weekly food critic Jonathan Kauffman documents the Korean glories served up nightly on Geary, where owner Hwa-Soon Im imbues her dishes with a point of view most chefs toiling away in the city's OpenTable bistros could only ever hope to achieve. The anchovy broth called sujebi, pork belly salad, pan-fried lightly cured mackerel: Im's dishes are personal and focused, made vivid from things like her house-cured doenjang (fermented soybean paste).

Whet your appetite via SFoodie's below-the-fold excerpt, then polish off the details at And before you head out to To Hyang, bone up with Kauffman's audio guide to pronouncing common Korean dishes.

Each meal, of course, began with panchan, the traditional array of seven or nine small plates of pickles, preserved vegetables, and side dishes that Im's daughter Min set on the table with mugs of roasted-barley tea the moment our order went in. Im's panchan were homespun and all the better for it. Her cabbage kimchi had a clean, precise tang, light on the salt and preserved shrimp, and a stinging but quick-fading heat; her radish kimchi was so fiery that sweat beaded up along the curve of my eyebrows. Other bowls contained crunchy, inch-long dried fish; translucent bean sprouts flecked with sesame seeds; and pickled radish threads dyed pink with chile powder. One night we received vinegar-pickled zucchini slices, another night tiny fritters made with fermented soybeans, chiles, and ground pork. They tasted like sausage patties. We asked for thirds.

On one of my visits, the panchan included four kinds of greens and stems, each with its own subtle dressing: salted and dried radish leaves, braised just long enough to restore a watery crunch; spindly fernbrake stems; satiny green turnip leaves and sweet braised roots; and blanched perilla leaves, their recalcitrant mint flavor emerging as I chewed. It reminded me most of my meals in southwest Korea last year, when I spent so much time crunching roots and greens that I began inspecting the teeth of everyone around me. (Much sturdier and whiter than mine.)

Follow us on Twitter: @SFoodie. Follow Jonathan Kauffman at @JonKauffman.

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