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Jang Soo BBQ: Rethinking Korean Barbecue in Style and Substance 

Wednesday, Dec 14 2011

It's not often that you're greeted at the door of a restaurant by a woman wearing an embroidered crimson hanbok, the traditional Korean dress that splays out from a high-waisted sash to orbit its wearer in a cone of rustling silk. And it's just as rare to walk in to a Korean restaurant in San Francisco whose décor recalls both Prairie School architecture and J. Lo videos: walls bricked up from floor to ceiling in uneven slate, silvery gray accents, pendant lamps wrapped in a thousand glittering crystals. The row of grill tables along the right wall, with their mottled plastic surfaces and inset grills, come from the midrange section of the Korean-restaurant supply catalog, but they blend in, classed up by their context.

Jang Soo BBQ didn't used to look this stylish. But when Ashley Lee, the hanbok-wearer, took over the Outer Richmond restaurant several months ago, she decided on a thorough remodel. Her first restaurant was the 4-year-old Kaju Cafe at California and Seventh Avenue, which she spruced up nine months ago and renamed Ashley's Cafe.

So what is the substance of a Korean restaurant devoted to style? Pretty much the same menu as places like Brothers and Korea House, streamlined down to a half-dozen small dishes and the same number of stews, a long list of meats to barbecue, and three dishes less well known among outsiders listed in a section labeled "Grandmother's Recipes." Along with the big bottles of O.B. beer and a variety of sake and soju, Jang Soo now serves Ventana Riesling and Richard Grant Pinot Noir by the glass. Meals come with either white rice or a blend of whole grains tinted black with half-mashed beans, and end with a plate of fresh fruit.

There are good dishes to be had at the new, upscale Jang Soo, though the kitchen hasn't yet found the flourish to match its surroundings. Many of the dishes I tried were cooked at normal San Francisco-quality levels, not those of Los Angeles or S.F.'s own Namu. A seafood pancake ($15), presented on a cast-iron pan the size of a medium pizza, came out pale and unevenly crisp, though the large lumps on its rolling surface indicated the sites of fat, sweet curls of shrimp and softly chewy cuttlefish tentacles. Jang Soo's soft-tofu stew ($12) was so bland — more tofu than broth — that we ate no more than two bites. And the restaurant's min ah chim ($32), sea bass steaks and coaster-sized disks of braised daikon coated in a sweet-spicy chile sauce, was pretty but prim, a wan soprano singing a contralto's aria.

But there were moments, and not a few of them, when style and substance merged. In the barbecue, for instance. When we ordered a couple of meats, the servers lit the gas flames at the center of our tables and brought out marinated kalbi (shortribs, $24) that spooled off the bone in a bright-red strip of meat densely streaked with fat. The server snipped the beef into 3-inch squares and began layering it onto the grill. While the sugars in the soy marinade blackened and caramelized, the fat kept the beef as tender as if it were medium rare, and we rolled the cooked slices in lettuce leaves, dabbing drops of fermented-soybean paste onto the top. Onto the grill, too, went giant sea scallops ($22) the size of tangerines, which browned on the edges until the centers began to turn opaque. Were they as sweet as scallops just caught off the coast? No, but dipping the meat in sesame oil gave them a delicate, nutty coating.

The servers tended the grill with the protectiveness of a kindergarten teacher on papier-mâché day. We were only able to wrest control of the tongs away from the waiters when a couple of big tables of young Korean-Americans showed up and called their attention away.

Jang Soo's prices rival Aziza's down the street, with many entrées approaching $30. When the food flops, the amount listed on the check can grate. But there's little reason to order more than one dish per person, surrounded as it is with panchan: cabbage and radish kimchi with a sharp, clean funk; dried squid lacquered in a sweet chile glaze; shavings of burdock root cooked in sweet soy; apples, cashews, and raisins tossed with a vinegar-spiked mayonnaise, a Korean-American Waldorf salad.

The kimchi chigae ($12), one of Jang Soo's best — order it "Korean style" and it will be properly spiced — comes off as less of a dish than a banquet. The bright-red stew is thick with swatches of cooked kimchi, fat chunks of beef, and translucent curls of onion, and throbs with heat and garlic, focused by the acidic bite of the fermented cabbage.

And three or four people can make a meal off the pork bossam ($29). Lee uses her grandmother's recipe, approaching the dish with a classicist's gaze, simply steaming a block of pork until the fatty skin goes translucent and the lean stripes of meat below firm up. Ssam is an action dish, a slow assembly of lettuce leaves and pork slices, frilly curls of shaved scallion, dabs of brined-shrimp sauce, and heaps of a sweet, crimson slaw of julienned radish, pear, and raw oysters. The mild pork ends up the silent center of each bite, swallowed up in radish funk and the crunch of fruit, the sea-tinged gush of a raw oyster, the salt-spike of brined shrimp. It is a dish elegant enough to be eaten with your fingers in a room that sparkles with light refracted through a thousand crystals.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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