There aren't too many restaurants that call out their riskiest meal options right on the menu. Not so at Riverside Korean in Covington where, under the heading of "Adventure Dinner," are three vaguely sinister sounding possibilities -- Spicy Raw Skate, Seasoned Fresh Raw Beef and Sliced Three Layer Pork Simmered with Kim Chi.
Although I'm usually up for pushing the digestive envelope (grilled beef heart in Peru, dried Mexican grasshoppers, etc.), nothing really spoke to me here: I've had skate before (didn't really care for it), eaten raw beef (personally, I think cows taste much better cooked) and am certain that the adventure in eating anything simmered with fiery Kim Chi would be gastrointestinally induced.
As it turned out, however, my meal at Riverside did turn out to be an adventure -- just not from anything on the menu. The real drama arose from the brewing, stewing, atmospheric conditions inside the restaurant. Air quality can be a real issue at Riverside. When the place is full, with charcoal braziers at tables billowing smoke and grease, and one lonely air conditioner futilely grinding away, the restaurant starts to create its own weather patterns.
If you enjoy watching sweat bead up on your dining companions, Riverside could be the place for you. On a recent hot, humid night, I watched -- appalled -- as one of my dining companions, decked out all GQ in a designer shirt, melted to a sweaty, unbuttoned, John Travolta look-alike. (Goodbye, appetite.) For my other companion, though, a hot mamacita already skimped out for a night out on the town, the sauna-like conditions definitely worked some magic. Eventually, we had to prop open the front door ourselves to let in some desperately needed air. Talk about adventure.
On several previous visits to Riverside, I had overlooked air quality challenges as a price of entry for getting authentic and interesting ethnic food.
We started with the Mul Man Du ($5.95), compact, flavorful poached dumplings made with vegetables, beef, and tofu. We also tried the Ya Chae Pa Jun ($11.95). These are vegetable pancakes made with green onion, zucchini, mushroom and peppers. The portion size was ample, but they were bland and tasted much better with some salt.
For entrées, I chose Dolsot Bibim Bab ($10.95). This combination of rice, vegetables and chicken, beef or tofu, is topped with a raw egg and served in a heavy stone bowl pre-heated to sizzling temperatures. Our server showed me how to mix the contents, stirring to cook the egg and folding in the accompanying spicy sauce (beware -- it's hot). Unfortunately, this dish too lacked flavor and needed salt.
The Nak Ji Bok Um ($13.95), Spicy Stir-Fried Octopus with Vegetables, was a total miss. Octopus pieces were tough and inedible. Despite heroic, cud-chewing efforts, it went largely uneaten. It also was served well ahead of the other entrées, arriving with our appetizers and fueling suspicions that it was a kitchen mix-up that had been sitting around for a while.
The standout of the meal was the Jab Chae ($12.95), Sweet Potato Noodles Stir-Fried with Beef and Vegetables. These translucent noodles were delicate and flavorful with an intriguingly faint taste of earthy sweet potato. Here, as in the other dishes where meat figured as an ingredient, there wasn't much meat at all. (I understand this is typical in Korea, where meat is an expensive ingredient, used sparingly.)
We enjoyed the selection of traditional cold side dishes brought out with meals. The assortment of pickled stewed vegetables including potato, cucumber, watercress and Kim Chi, were delicious, fresh, and fun to sample. There is no dessert on the menu. Our server explained that in Korea, dessert is often not eaten or limited to some fruit.
Service was rushed and generally inattentive. From the unexplained early arrival of the octopus dish to the feeling of being hurried out the door as the restaurant began closing, it didn't seem like anyone was really tuned in to our being there.
The restaurant is intimate, with fewer than a dozen tables -- a combination of booths and low tables with cushions for seats. (Be prepared to take off your shoes.) Décor is traditional -- with lots of wood and screens.
After talking with friends who have lived in Korea, it's clear that Riverside might in fact offer too authentic an experience. Air quality issues are apparently pretty normal in restaurants in Korea -- made even worse by the fact that nearly everybody there smokes incessantly.
All this brings me to a simple yet important rule of thumb for dining: The experience should not get in the way of the food. Unfortunately at Riverside, authenticity notwithstanding, it very much does. ©
Riverside Korean Restaurant
Go: 512 Madison Ave., Covington
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, seafood, noodle dishes