Restaurant Reviews

Peninsular Pride

When I was living in Southern California, I worked in a seafood restaurant located at the end of a pier. During my shift, I occupied my time with waiting tables, doing sidework, and watching the fishermen bring in their catches of bottom-feeders: rays, crabs, the occasional soda can washed in from an irresponsible boater.

I was fascinated especially by the Asian immigrants, many of whom didn't even use a rod and reel. Instead, they tossed what appeared to be a bit of twine tied with multiple hooks into the waves. They never failed, it seemed, to drop right into the middle of a school of mackerel and always managed to haul heaps of the glimmering fish up on the faded wood of the pier. Then they scooped the fish into buckets and headed for home, with me longing to follow. If they were so successful with something as basic as string and curved metal, I wondered, might they also be managing to make the mackerel themselves, which many in SoCal considered at that time to be inconsequential garbage fish, into a gastronomic treat?

Indeed, that was most likely the case, especially if they followed the same steps as the cooks at Kawai, a six-month-old Korean and Japanese eatery on Lake Avenue in downtown Lake Worth.

Take two mackerel, eyes bright and scales shiny (both indications that they are incredibly fresh). Score them about a dozen times. Grill until the skin begins to char lightly and curl off. Serve whole with a side of wasabi sauce. Watch customers swoon with delight at the first taste of sweet, meaty flesh. Hardly inconsequential. Hardly garbage.

Just don't make the mistake of looking into the "fish pond" in the middle of the restaurant room while you consume, hunk by succulent hunk, the juicy white fish. The open-air fish tank dominates the long, narrow storefront room, framed with glass blocks that are just about the right height for a toddler to climb up and kneel on. The koi and carp swimming in the clear water might be a great distraction for a restless kid, but they can be a guilt-inducing object lesson for a diner with anything less than a moderately hard heart.

I'm inured enough, of course, to hold a baby lamb on my lap while I stick my knife and fork into what might have once been its brother. Which is probably why I was also delighted to learn that Kawai offered superfresh sushi. And I'm not just talking tuna. A sign advertising uni (sea urchin) and amoebi (raw shrimp served with the deep-fried heads of the shrimp on the side) nigiri was too tempting to ignore. The sea urchin, which can in the wrong hands become slimy, gritty, and gelatinous, held good, soft form and left a briny, bracing tang on the palate. A perfect complement, the milder shrimp acted like a palate cleanser, while the crisp, deep-fried heads were buttery and crunchy, allowing the diner to appreciate complete textural contrasts.

Kawai is primarily a family-run Korean eatery, but it has every right to be proud of its katsu-don. Coated in panko, the coarse-ground Japanese bread crumbs that always seem to make a fried food item a bit springier, the katsu was a greaseless, deep-fried pork cutlet. It was served, along with a fried egg, over a bowl of white rice and topped with a deep, just-tangy sauce. Sounds simple, but it's pretty hard to find good, authentic katsu-don in the States; most often, it arrives sans egg or even rice, with the plummy sauce on the side. Kawai's version was the example that could teach patrons what to expect.

Still, I wish the staff members at Kawai would take equal, apparent pride in their Korean identity. Perhaps they just underestimate their clientele. When we were seated, we were given the Japanese menu only -- I suppose we looked like California-roll types -- and had to request the Korean menu, which we did much to our server's astonishment. And when we ordered a dish of pan-fried goon mandu to snack on as a starter, the waitress wrote down gyoza, the more common, Japanese name for dumplings. Regardless of what you called them, these savory pastries were unquestionably handmade -- you could see the imprints of fingers rather than machines in the dough -- and delicious, the ground beef accented by pungent green onions.

No doubt it's true that many South Floridians are not as comfortable or acquainted with Korean food as they are with Chinese, say, or Thai. And Kawai, which is American enough to play the Dave Matthews Band outside the restaurant to lure in younger-generation foot traffic, is not exactly helping matters by presenting a poorly translated and often bewildering menu. For instance, one of the appetizers on the list, haemul pajon, is billed as "traditional Korean style pan made with hot paper and seafood." Only if you're familiar with the Korean language -- for instance, if you know that jon is the generic word for pan-fried fritters and pajon are scallion pancakes, a common snack -- would you know that this is actually green chili peppers, scallions, clams, and squid pressed between layers of buckwheat batter. In other words, it's a seafood pancake. Not so exotic after all, but downright yummy, even if it did seem a little pricey at $12.95, given the plethora of green onion and dearth of actual seafood.

Koreans are known for their fritters, pancakes, and dumplings that fill the belly with warming carbohydrates. If you've ever watched Hawkeye Pierce shiver dramatically during an episode of M*A*S*H, you'll recall that Korea, like northern China, can get pretty chilly. Indeed, one of my fondest memories is going to a Korean restaurant for just-fried vegetable pancakes and ginger tea on the coldest day of the year in Chicago, then having enough body fuel to actually walk (if somewhat stiffly, given the dozen layers of scarves I was wrapped in) back to my friend's apartment.

Likewise, soups and stews, usually made and served in heat-keeping stone pots called tukbaege, are popular meals. Kawai lists some of these under "house specialties" and others under "sizzling dishes," sometimes a misnomer. For example, the multitudes of jigae are really more like soups -- think Vietnamese pho -- than stir-fried dishes. A piquant concoction, the basic kimchee jigae is usually cooked when the kimchee has been lingering in the refrigerator for about two weeks and needs to be used up. Boil the chili-spiced, preserved cabbage in water with cubes of bean curd, perhaps some pork, and a highly regarded vegetable like zucchini and voilà -- a tasty one-disher you don't even have to season, thanks to the previously marinated cabbage. Variations on the theme at Kawai include a marvelous doenjang jigae (somewhat mysteriously described as "clams, squash and onion stew of bean in heated stone pot"), further flavored with toothsome little nuggets of clams that didn't betray their seabed origins with a single speck of unwanted sand.

Two of the most well-known (to Americans) dishes are prepared with expertise here, though once again, the menu might be misleading. Bulgogi, thin-sliced marinated beef, is supposed to be served raw and cooked by the customer on a tabletop grill (a descendant of Mongolian barbecue). Kawai served it already fixed, which in the end we didn't mind because the beef, practically shaved, was so tender and savory, we were glad we didn't have to stop to make more.

On the other hand, the dish made famous by restaurants in the city of Chonju, bibimbap, was prepared tabletop, though by the waitress instead of the customer, as is also customary. A rice mixture stir-fried in a tukbaege, bibimbap is presented as a pie chart, with individual ingredients such as julienne beef, bean sprouts, scallions, cucumber, and seaweed arranged in wedges. Then the separate elements are mixed together, rapidly sautéed in sesame oil, chili paste, sesame seeds, and a raw egg, and the mixture infuses into the medley as it cooks. The result? A super, multifaceted meal that supplies endless nuances of flavor in every bite.

It's necessary to return to the Japanese menu for desserts, as the Korean one doesn't offer any; even my Korean cookbooks don't describe much in the way of sweets beyond dates dipped in honey. But it's not so far-fetched to follow the zesty Korean dishes with some cooling green tea ice cream. Just as it's not out of the realm of believability that Kawai might actually tempt those more comfortable with gyoza and miso soup into trying goon mandu and jigae -- if they remember to pass out the Korean menus, that is.

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick