The Raw and the Cooked
When it comes to places to eat, appearances can be deceiving. The first time I saw Japan Hill, I drove right on by the five-month-old restaurant located on West Oakland Park Boulevard in Lauderhill. The squat, ugly, freestanding building, draped with banners, didn't inspire my confidence. Nor did the nearly empty parking lot. I turned around only because, having already made the journey, I decided I might as well give it a shot.
I was completely unprepared for the stately interior: carved wooden tables, beige gingham-checked seats, a black-and-white terrazzo floor. In the middle of the 100-seat restaurant, surrounded by Western-style tables, a low couch and coffee tables strewn with travel magazines invite lounging with some sake or a casual meal. Nearby, a couple of traditional Japanese tables, at which customers pull up a portion of the cushioned floor instead of chairs (shoe removal is required) are in demand. In the back, a sushi bar with stools serves all-you-can-eat sushi and tempura for $13.
Though it's apparent, once you're inside, that Japan Hill is a Japanese restaurant, I didn't expect the Japanese focus. The takeout menus in the lobby attest to a selection of sushi, sashimi, tempura, and teriyaki. But I'd been told to look for a Korean eatery called Da Mee Rak at this address, and I was eager to locate it. Japanese eateries are a yen a dozen in Broward. Korean cuisine is more of a find.
On my way in, I'd noticed some signs written in Korean lettering in the windows of Japan Hill. The hostess confirmed that owner Pyung Gun is indeed Korean and that the restaurant is also known as Da Mee Rak; in fact, the phone book has it listed under that name rather than Japan Hill. The dual identity is a just cause for confusion, as are the two separate menus -- one Japanese, one Korean.
After we were seated, we were given only the Japanese menu. Our server seemed surprised and reluctant when we requested the other one. "Why?" she asked. "How do you know Korean food?"
While I'm not of Asian descent, I've enjoyed all types of Eastern dishes (as have many Americans) over the years. I know Korean food, in particular, because I knew a Korean boy -- and his refrigerator -- rather well in my youth. I have a nostalgic fondness for it. My husband, on the other hand, simply loves the flavorful, uncomplicated fare: the spicy kim chee (pickled cabbage), the elastic buckwheat-noodle casseroles, the marinated meats barbecued on grills in the center of the table.
I'm not sure why the staff keeps the two menus separate. Maybe it's because some casual historians believe that Koreans dislike the Japanese, having been occupied by Japan for seven years in the late 16th Century. But entrepreneurism overcomes animosity any day. The proprietor of Japan Hill/Da Mee Rak is merely taking advantage of a trend that has led Thai, Chinese, and Vietnamese restaurateurs to add best-selling sushi to their repertoires. Evidently Gun and staff feel comfortable enough with the trend to promote the restaurant as Japanese to Americans, Korean to fellow Koreans.
And the two cuisines are not wholly unrelated. When the Japanese invaded Korea in 1592, they were accompanied by Portuguese Catholic priests, who introduced the chili pepper to the locals. With the arrival of the chili, which has preservative qualities, the Koreans were able to cure meats, fish, and vegetables and make their famous kim chee. The Japanese, in turn, adopted the kim chee flavorings -- chili, garlic, and ginger -- to make a sauce that accompanies various types of sushi.
At Japan Hill the zingy, red kim chee sauce coated a batch of harusame, a salad gleaned from the Japanese menu and comprising fried cellophane noodles and shaved cucumber and cabbage. The crisp noodles toned down the sauce somewhat, which was much more piquant in the kim chee itself -- the pickled cabbage leaves thoroughly absorbed the chili.
We took bites of the kim chee to counteract an exceedingly bland Korean noodle dish, naeng myon. The mound of buckwheat noodles, a cold, soupy main course, were too springy and impossible to separate; usually, a pair of scissors accompanies the dish (the way a steak knife does a piece of beef in American restaurants). A garnish of cider vinegar-cured cucumbers and radishes provided most of the flavor, as the broth surrounding the noodles seemed to be mostly water. Half of a hard-boiled egg and three slices of dried-out meat decorated the pasta.
The Korean menu, limited to a few dishes, doesn't offer appetizers. Patrons intent on a multicourse meal can take advantage of the extensive Japanese selection, which includes a lustrous soft-shell crab starter. The meaty blue crab, lightly deep-fried, was at once crisp and tender and not fishy at all. Miso soup, however, was too reminiscent of the ocean -- the seaweed floating in the fermented soybean broth was disintegrating and briny. Dumpling soup wasn't much of an improvement over the miso. Four shrimp shumai, steamed dumplings dotted with only a chunk or two of the crustacean, were soggy and spongy, soaked with a too-salty chicken bouillon.
Sushi is versatile and may be consumed as an appetizer or a main course. Japan Hill offers albacore as a special, and the slices of buttery white tuna, molded over vinegared rice, were mild and delicious. The restaurant also lists more than 20 rolls -- logs of rice, vegetables, and fish wrapped in seaweed and then sliced. An akira roll, filled with raw tuna, salmon, and yellowtail snapper, was fresh and tasty, though the slices were a bit thin.
The sushi aficionado will be drawn to the "love boat," a house specialty. The $49.50 treat is hardly a Princess cruise ship -- the assortment of sushi, sashimi, and rolls was arranged on a fish-shaped platter rather than on a more typical bamboo boat. Still, the fish was marvelous, chilled to a perfect temperature and free of distracting, toughening fibers. The "love boat" makes for a satisfying meal for two to three people.
The Korean house specialty also features a combination of foods, only they're cooked delicacies. In fact, they're barbecued -- the chicken, shrimp, and strips of beef, all marinated beforehand, are grilled in front of the customer, who takes the tidbits from the server as soon as they're done. (Only a few of the tables have grills; diners should be sure to request one if they're eating Korean.) We especially loved the succulent beef. A tangy shredded-lettuce salad, served on the side, was an excellent textural contrast. The Japanese versions of the grilled meats -- chicken and beef teriyaki -- weren't nearly as good. The beef was tough, the chicken dry, and the teriyaki sauce too potent.
We went back to Japan for dessert and were disappointed by sour banana fritters. The chunks of tempura-battered fruit were decidedly unappealing, as if starchy plantains had been used instead of sweeter, more pliant bananas. We probably should have done what the Korean businessmen seated next to us did -- BYOS (Bring Your Own Scotch). Then, by the end of the meal, dessert wouldn't have mattered so much. Nor would the fact that Japan Hill, a.k.a. Da Mee Rak -- half Japanese, half Korean, and at times half-hearted -- is an apparent contradiction.
Japan Hill/Da Mee Rak. 7225 W. Oakland Park Blvd., Lauderhill, 954-572-9197. Lunch Monday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner from 5 to 11 p.m.
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