An out-of-town foodie friend asked me to recommend some downtown ethnic dining choices that wouldn't break the bank. As I thumbed through the files in my head, I realized there really weren't too many options. One of the few that did come to mind was Sung Korean Bistro.
Owner Sung J. Oh opened this very chic bistro after 13 years at Riverside Korean, the Covington restaurant he co-owned with his sister and brother-in-law. Unlike Riverside, which embraces its ethnicity with open arms, Sung tries to stay true to authentic Korean food while making it more approachable for a less familiar audience.
Sung's dining room was crowded on my first visit. I was glad to see the business doing so well, but felt they could do with one less table in the dining room as servers periodically bumped into us throughout our meal. There is traditional-style floor seating in the back of the room, but I've not seen anyone sitting there on any of my visits.
People from all walks of life filled the black tables under the dim, red paper lighting. The young, hip crowd had found the restaurant's corner, but so had families with children, business people and the bohemian set -- that would be our table.
Unlike some of its neighbors' cuisines, Korean food is fairly healthy. There are lots of fermented foods, vegetables, grains and soups.
We started with the Goonmandu ($6), pan-fried dumplings stuffed with tofu, scallion, onion and cabbage, and Gimbab ($7), rice rolls with radish, crabmeat, beef, egg and cucumber. The dumplings were so delicious I was afraid I'd burn my fingers as I popped them into my mouth. The Gimbab, on the other hand, was disappointing. We had the sense that in the interest of efficiency the roll had been pre-made and pre-sliced then set in the refrigerator until service time. It made for a product like those from my grocery store sushi forays.
For dinner my husband ordered the Bibimbab ($13) with beef, a popular Korean dish that includes a bowl of warm white rice topped with namul (seasoned vegetables), a fried egg and chili pepper paste. The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating. A popular variation of the dish, which is also on the menu, is Dolsot Bibimbab ($16). It includes the same ingredients but it is served in a very hot stone bowl. Before the rice is added, the bottom of the blazing bowl is coated with sesame oil, which makes the bottom layer of the rice golden brown and crispy. At Sung both of these dishes are made with watercress, bean sprouts, carrots, radish, lettuce, a sunny side up egg and a choice of beef, chicken or tofu.
We also ordered the Dak Bulgogi ($16), a grilled sweet and sour chicken breast served with white rice and the Kimchi Jigae ($12), a kimchi soup made with pork, tofu, onion and mushroom.
Of the three, the soup was the most successful. The chicken dish wasn't bad, but not something I would go out of my way to order again. Our server, who had to be told Sapporo was from Japan when my husband asked about Korean beers, also brought out Dolsot Bibimbab rather than Bibimbab. It was serviceable, but not extraordinary.
On a second visit with a friend who's something of a Korean food aficionado, we tried the Dolsot Bibimbab again to see if I missed something the first time around, but her reaction was the same. Even though we waited to stir our dish for several minutes, we never got that beautiful golden crunch in the rice, and by replacing the seasoned vegetables with tamer watercress, bean sprouts, carrots, radish and lettuce, I think Sung might have tipped the balance toward approachable a little too far.
Happily, we did uncover a phenomenal appetizer: Haemul Padjun ($15), a pancake with egg, shrimp, crabmeat, squid, green onion and pepper. It could easily feed four as an appetizer, but we agreed we'd prefer it as an entr´e so we could hoard all the tender morsels of shrimp and squid we chased around our plates to wash down with glasses of Living Jewel ($6) and Voices in the Mist ($5) saki.
Our service experience was similar on the second visit as well. While the staff is very friendly, they all seem to be in over their heads. None are completely comfortable answering diners' questions. If the concept is to make Korean food more approachable, the servers will play a big role in this, and the scent of fear can be an overpowering aroma.
Sung Korean Bistro
Go: 700 Elm St., Downtown
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Friday; 5 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Saturday
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, chicken, vegetarian dishes
Accessibility: Fully accessible