Dinner at Chung Kiwha will stick with you long after you've left. Step into the dining room and the smell of meat cooking will become one with your clothes.
Chung Kiwha, open since 1998 in Florence, serves traditional Korean barbecue. This involves cooking over small grills in tables fueled with wood charcoal, giving food a rich, smoky flavor. Overhead vents are somewhat successful at catching rising smoke. Clientele is mostly Japanese businessmen from the nearby Toyota headquarters, hungry for a taste of their home hemisphere.
Alluring? Unusual? Absolutely. Unfortunately, though, Chung Kiwha falls short of the mark in two critical areas: First, it could definitely stand to improve its ambience to deliver a more authentic and distinctive experience.
More importantly, it has a very limited menu. If you love meat, you'll be very happy. If not, you don't have many options.
The dining room is a dark, characterless space with not much to signal Korean. The night we went, the dining room was dominated by a big screen TV tuned to a reality show featuring two women in bikinis with a guy on a boat — more Kentucky than Korean. I found myself craving authenticity.
Dining is buffet style, with lots of food on display for diners to load onto their plates. There's plenty of marinated and seasoned raw beef, pork, beef short ribs, chicken and tongue, as well as seafood, scallops, shrimp, squid, mussels and clams. You pay one price ($24.95) and can go back as often as you like.
There's a limited selection of vegetables for grilling. Piles of peeled garlic cloves and a brown sauce made with bean curd are available to mix with meat and wrap in lettuce leaves for a traditional Korean treat.
The grill-it-yourself part is definitely fun. For backyard warriors used to standing over their Weber, it will be a unique pleasure to park it grill-side and get face-to-face with the sizzle and snap. (I'm sure kids will also enjoy this, provided they don't grill their fingers.) Sedentary grilling: What an idea. It's surprising that this hasn't been widely adopted here in America, land of the path of least resistance.
There is also a selection of traditional cold side dishes, including Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) and Chop Chae (translucent potato noodles). However, even for vegetarians, it's hard to make a meal of this. Unless you're scarfing down lots o' meat, it's also not a good value; at $24.95 per person, broccoli-heads will need to eat a lot of Kimchi to get their money's worth.
The meats and seafood we tried were all pretty good — the thick brown sauce and a thin sweeter marinade poured over top produced some tasty morsels. But the culinary offering felt shallow and lacking in variety.
Korean food is extremely diverse, and Chung Kiwha doesn't show this off. I'd like them to follow the lead of other Korean restaurants, offering barbecue as well as other specialties (noodles, soups, stews and rice dishes).
I asked my dining companion — a vivacious thirty something foodie known for constantly revising her Top 10 Favorite Restaurant lists — if she'd recommend Chung Kiwha. She said no. Why? Simple: Downer atmosphere, no buzz and uninspiring food offering.
For additional perspective, I turned to a friend who lived in Korea for several years and who has dined at Chung Kiwha. A Londoner dragged to Cincinnati by his spouse, he spoke longingly of tiny restaurants in Korea jam-packed with people, full of noise and smoke and good smells. It was the ambience in Korea that made the meals and, although Chung Kiwha's barbecue tasted pretty much like it did in Korea, its big, bland setting had turned him off to the place. (For skeptics who say you can't re-create Korea in Kentucky, try Covington's excellent and atmospheric Korean Riverside Restaurant.)
I returned to try the sushi at Chung Kiwha's full-blown sushi bar (you can also order sushi in the main dining room), sampling a selection of maki and some Chef's Special Rolls. These were above average, with some rolls quite good. The friendly chef started me out with a delicious salad of cucumber, avocado and crab. Seeing that my eyes were bigger than my stomach, he knowingly scaled back my order, unbeknownst to me, waiting to see how much I could eat before graciously asking if I wanted the rest.
Chung Kiwha is clearly doing something right: Numerous Japanese businessmen and assorted locals regularly pile in for the all-you-can-eat meat buffet. However, But by improving its ambiance and diversifying its menu, Chung Kiwha could deliver a more appealing and distinctive experience to become more of a destination for authentic ethnic dining. ©
Chung Kiwha Korean BBQ and Sushi
Go: 7800 Commerce Drive, Florence
Hours: 4:30-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 1:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; sushi bar closed Sunday
Prices: Expensive ($24.95 per person cost is for the all-you-can-eat buffet; there is no a la carte menu) Sushi menu: moderate.
Payment: Visa, MasterCard and American Express
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood and chicken for grilling; multiple cold vegetarian side dishes
Accessibility: Handicapped parking at front door and curb ramp; all on one level except for sushi bar, which has two steps up