Americans don't know a whole lot about Korean cuisine. Like the Chinese and Japanese, Koreans flavor their foods with sesame oil, soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and dried fish sauces. But thanks to the Portuguese, who introduced chili peppers to the peninsula in the 16th Century, dishes here are far more incendiary (the heat often infused by a fermented chili paste called "gochujang"). Staples of the Korean diet include rice, fish, seaweed, tofu, and spicy pickled vegetables called kimchee, which is produced via an ancient art. The most common kimchee is made with napa cabbage. Other possible ingredients include radish, turnip, cucumber, and fruits; the brine may include coarse salt, chile, ginger, garlic, oyster sauce, and anchovies. The ingredients are placed into an earthenware pot to ferment. Koreans eat these vegetables every day of the year.
So the table is set for glorious Gabose, which offers authentic, delectable, spunky, sparkling-fresh, and well-priced Korean cuisine. The restaurant serves Japanese food too, and indeed, with its clean lines and light woods, the décor appears at first glance to be that of a typical sushi establishment. Closer inspection reveals side booths with the traditional Korean seating arrangement of floor cushions placed around low tables. Considering the tense history between Japan and Korea, adding Japanese food to Gabose seems a little like instituting a Shiite menu in a Sunni café, and I couldn't help but notice that the largely Asian clientele here shunned the sushi selections.
Navigating Gabose's expansive, meandering menu, with its myriad Korean titles, food photos, and strange-sounding offerings, is only slightly less challenging than pronouncing it. The appetizer section is straightforward enough, but then the going gets tough. Try soups. They are stocked with short ribs, sausage, rice cakes, or dumplings; hot pot casseroles, which are expensive ($28 to $33), full-course, piquant soups based on either seafood, goat, or beef intestines; and a third category that is titled in Korean only but includes individual items described as spicy soups plumped with either codfish, monkfish, caviar, blue crab, or some combo of pork and tofu. Just when it would appear you've made your choice, you'll turn the menu page and see the Japanese selections, like miso, chicken soup, fish soup, dumpling soup...
We began with mandugug, a mellow broth mildly imbued with sesame and soy and plumped with Korean dumplings, scallions, seaweed, egg, and enough tofu to stuff a vegan. "Kimchee soontofu" packed more punch, essentially a soft tofu stew spiked with kimchi, chilis, scallions, and slivers of tender pork -- the sassy brew punctuated with the breaking of a soft egg yolk.
Street carts and restaurants all over Seoul serve pancakes studded with seafood or vegetables. Gabose offers these too, as well as a traditional potato pancake called gamjajun. Green with scallions, the plate-sized griddle-cake was a pleasurably chewy hybrid between potato latke and Chinese scallion pancake. Tangsuyuk is a more accessible crowd-pleaser, a pile of battered, crunchily fried pork balls laced with pickled snippets of cucumber, carrot, and apple in a sweet/tart apple-and-vinegar based sauce. Expensive for an appetizer ($14.95) but ample enough for a quartet of diners to share. "Goon Mandu," the new chief of North Korea's secret police -- I mean, ten pan-fried dumplings -- was also tasty, similar to Japanese gyoza but with a bit more piquancy.
Koreans regard their noodles as something of a national treasure, and Gabose's menu reflects this with numerous homemade, noodle-based dishes. "Gan jajang" is fairly typical of the rest, a nest of thin, angel-hair strands of buckwheat topped with a dollop of chili bean paste and garnished with slices of lean, well-cooked pork, half of a hard-boiled egg, and pickled cucumbers and cabbage.
Rice too plays an integral role at dinner. Each diner at Gabose is given a stainless steel bowl of steamed, short-grain "sticky" rice with a lid to keep the heat in. A more complex presentation of the grain can be found in the exceptional "dolsot bibimbap," which is sure to appeal to those who like eating the crunchy, caramelized rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot. When making bibimbap, that crust is created purposely by cooking the rice, along with vegetables, chopped beef, and egg, in a scorching hot stone pot. The hot pot is then brought to the table, where the waiter breaks up the golden bottom crust and mixes it about, along with a healthy heaping of chili paste.
I'm not a big fan of self-cooking in restaurants, partly out of a lingering concern that afterward they may ask me to do the dishes. Still, since Korean barbecue, or bulgogi ("fire beef") is a signature of the country's cuisine, I reserved a "bulgogi table," one of many lined up toward the rear of the restaurant and identifiable by having a hole in the middle covered by a metal plate. If seated here, you are obligated to order at least two items from the bulgogi menu section, ostensibly to make it worthwhile for the staff to haul the wok-like grill filled with glowing coals to the table. We chose the aforementioned tongue and bite-sized strips of boneless beef short ribs marinated in sesame, soy, garlic, chili pepper, ginger, and sugar, this last ingredient sweetly caramelizing the slices as they grilled quickly over a wire grate. A pair of tongs were left on the table for us to turn the meat, but we were a bit slow, I suppose, as the waiter came over and did it for us; we were left to our own devices when it came to cooking the tongue.
If you like to toy around with your comestibles, the bulgogi table is nothing short of a gastronomic playground. Not only do you get to throw food onto the grill but the typical Korean meal features three to 12 small bowls of shared, bite-sized garnishings ("banchan") in neat concentric circles around the center grill. They include red chili paste, a miso-tasting soybean paste, marinated olives and mushrooms, garlic-sautéed broccoli rabe, raw garlic and jalapeño slices, strips of fish cake in chili sauce, kimchee pickled cucumbers, and, of course, regular cabbage kimchee. Barbecue offerings that don't require the special table but still come with a bounty of banchan to play with include pork, short ribs, sirloin steak, squid, eel, mackerel, and Korean yellow fish.
Not much in the way of desserts, perhaps because Koreans consider it rude to overeat. I hope I didn't offend, but I definitely overate, even without dessert. In my defense, I maintain that the food at Gabose Restaurant is so darn delicious, it's nearly impossible not to.