“They say that Korean restaurants should be judged by the quality of their banchan, the various small plates that land on the table to mark the beginning of a Korean meal,” write authors Deuki Hong and Matt Rodbard in Koreatown, A Cookbook. “They also say that a restaurant should be judged by the pace at which they are refilled by the servers.”
Dining recently at the new East Hyde Park restaurant 3501 Seoul, I thought about this truism. The banchan didn’t land on the table until the main course. And the six side dishes — the literal translation for “banchan” — were extremely modest serving sizes and certainly less generous than those eaten many times at The Korea House, 3501’s sister location in Montgomery; there was only enough for a small bite each, with no refills on offer. I suspect this staple of Korean dining may have suffered an unfortunate downsizing in response to local consumption patterns, which is a shame, given that banchan are thought of as the spine of a Korean meal.
Kimchi, the most well-known banchan, as well as other fermented and marinated vegetables — including kale with sesame seeds, bean sprouts and daikon with the ubiquitous gochugaru (Korean chile) — varied in their agreeable Korean umami blend of funk and fire. Only a few threads of dried squid, my personal favorite, were served.
But I’m getting way ahead of myself. First it must be said that owners Shelly and Kwan Choi have indeed worked magic, transforming a former unassuming grocery store on Erie Avenue into a sweeping open space with a patio, generous bar and a dining room with high ceilings and subdued lighting, all rendered in a sophisticated palette of natural wood and tones of red, gray and black.
Settling into a comfortable banquette in the main dining room, we immediately ordered a Korean pancake, choosing the Kimchi Pajon ($12.95), and paired it with Kass beer, a Korean beer served with appropriately chilled mugs. The pancake arrived crisp, but a bit heavy on the oil, and presented a mix of textures and flavors — crunchy and chewy; salty, sweet and sour — with bits of kimchi, tofu, scallion, onion and zucchini, complemented by the essential soy-sesame-vinegar jeon dipping sauce.
We followed it with Kim-Bap ($9.95), a Korean beef roll (think beef sushi). The nori-wrapped roll featured a delicate medley at its sushi-rice heart of egg (seasoned with sugar and kombu and fried in a thin crepe-like layer), marinated beef, crab stick, cucumber, pickled daikon, cooked spinach, minced carrot and kikuna (chrysanthemum leaves).
“Korean food is fresh and healthy,” says Shelly Choi. “We don’t use any canned vegetables — no baby corn, no water chestnuts. We use fresh garlic and ginger and we make everything homestyle.”
There’s a popular greeting in Korea, “Bap Meogeosseoyo,” that translates to, “Have you eaten rice (bap) today?” As with all Korean restaurants, rice and noodles figure largely on 3501 Seoul’s menu. I honed in on the bibimbap ($25.95), literally mixed rice and a signature Korean dish, choosing, on this steamy evening, the fresh bibimbap, a mixture of raw salmon, red snapper, tuna, flying fish roe, octopus and maguro-tataki (minced tuna pounded with the blunt edge of a knife).
Like all bibimbaps, the protein was complemented by a tasty array of pickled and fresh vegetables, including shredded daikon, avocado, shredded cucumbers and seaweed salad, all topped with the crunch of tempura-batter crisps. At the Montgomery location, this dish is served in a stone bowl. Here, it was presented in a white ceramic bowl, which took away some of its beauty.
The housemade sauce accompanying all rice bowls proved to be the perfect complement to the subtle flavors of the raw fish. Umami surfaced again in the garlicky, spicy taste that comes from Korean fermented chile paste, the main sauce ingredient. Made from chile peppers, sticky rice, fermented soybeans and salt, the heat is low-burner — lingering rather than scorching.
While 3501 Seoul is a Korean bistro, not a barbecue with tabletop grills, the kitchen does offer several grilled choices. The Kal-Bi ($25.95), hand-filleted beef short ribs, arrived on a bed of lightly grilled onions and was served with a delicious — and new to us — purple rice (actually a black rice, rich in vitamin E, antioxidants and iron). Marinated in a salty sweet housemade sauce with a ganjang base (a Korean soy sauce made from fermented soybeans), the meat was super tender. Korean meat dishes are traditionally served with a side of fresh greens to wrap the meat in, and we were surprised when a plate of lettuce leaves didn’t make an appearance.
Despite those small banchan and missing lettuce leaves, there’s plenty more to like at this Hyde Park newcomer. With its outdoor seating, generous happy hours, specialty drink menu and late-night hours, it’s the perfect setting for drinks and small plates. 3501 Seoul also offers a full sushi menu with a wide choice of specialty rolls, as well as nigiri and sashimi, which I look forward to sampling on a future visit — maybe happy hour on that patio.
GO: 3501 Erie Ave., Hyde Park; CALL: 513-873-9181; INTERNET: searchable on Facebook; HOURS: 4:30 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 4:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday; noon-2 a.m. Saturday; noon-10 p.m. Sunday.