I'm not bragging, but if it weren't for me, my parents would never try new food.
When I first took them to a Japanese restaurant, Dad squirmed at the sight of raw toro; Mom wondered what reason there could be to eat something rolled in seaweed. Five years later, they nosh on tuna tataki and wolf down California rolls twice a week at their favorite restaurant, Ninja Asian Bistro in Coral Springs. They're such good customers, the owners keep a pair of hand-painted chopsticks tucked away in a box with my parents' names on it — they'll never have to eat with those splintery wooden ones again. Thanks to me, mind you.
OK, I'm bragging a little. But forget for a moment that you can't fling a used chopstick ten feet in South Florida nowadays without hitting a sushi joint and that nearly half the restaurants offer some form of seared tuna. There's a time in the life of any cuisine — be it Japanese, Thai, Mexican, or Korean — when it's considered exotic. Before Japanese food became a staple of the American diet, there had to be early adopters willing to drag their friends and family into a new experience.
You'd think my parents would remember this, but despite my assurances, they had to be coaxed like finicky infants to join me for dinner at New Seoul Korean Restaurant in Lake Worth. When I told them they'd love Korean food — its flavors bold but simple, aiming for a Zen-like balance of sweet and spicy, crunchy and supple — they were skeptical. Korean food just doesn't have enough cultural traction yet, at least not in SoFla. I could sing the praises of New Seoul's succulent galbi or crisp, pan-fried goon mandu until I was gasping for air, but my parents were still scared to try something that seemed so foreign.
Yet within minutes of our arrival at New Seoul, much of their fear was assuaged. When pleasant, smiling faces greet you at the door, your jaw unclenches a little. New Seoul's owner, Yong Yamamoto — who, with her husband, Kiyonori, has run Yama Japanese Restaurant in Delray Beach for 12 years — is a gracious and beautiful hostess. Her demeanor extends to her waitstaff, who are exceedingly helpful and courteous, like personal sherpas, ready to guide you through New Seoul's mountainous menu.
New Seoul is full of romantic bistro touches. Rustic faux-copper walls are livened with understated, mahogany-hued panels. Plush red-vinyl seats scootch up to beautiful granite tabletops. Dark floor tiles pave the way to a low-lit bar sparkling with silver stars hung overhead. Rarely have I seen a family restaurant with such attention to detail. Simple touches such as wooden beads that obscure the sprinkler system for the tabletop grills show how seriously Yong Yamamoto takes your experience at her restaurant.
Yamamoto and her husband opened the place about a year ago. The first time I wandered in, in June, the table-mounted grills emblematic of Korean barbecue were in place, but they didn't have permits for them yet, so instead of grilling gui (marinated beef, chicken, and pork) at your table, they'd bring the meat out on sizzling skillets à la fajitas. When we visited three weeks ago, the City of Lake Worth had just given the thumbs-up to the grills, and two of the four barbecue tables were in flux with laughter, conversation, and the wafting smell of gui. There are about 70 seats in the restaurant; the barbecue tables comprise about 20. If you want to be sure your party enjoys the full barbecue experience, call in advance.
Open the menu at New Seoul and you notice two things: First, it's huge — three pages deep of pajun cakes; hot jjige soups and their cold, noodley companions, nengmyon; marinated gui; sweet-and-sour tangsuyuk; and nuclear-hot bowls of bibimbob. Second, it's printed in Korean with Romanized translations and minimal descriptions; kimchi jjige is explained as "Kimchi with sliced pork and vegetables in spicy hot soup," while daegu jjige is "Cod fish, onion, and vegetables in spicy hot soup" and so on. The food is served family-style, which makes the lack of information doubly frustrating as you try to coordinate your party's likes and dislikes.
Without any direction, you could be lost in the labyrinthine menu for days. Luckily, our waitress was there to prevent that. She first directed us to some appetizers, starting with goon mandu ($7.95), crescent-shaped dumplings filled with finely minced pork, garlic, and onion, pan-fried until the silky pasta skin caramelizes at the seams. God, they're good: crisp but greaseless, vibrant when dipped in the tangy soy-vinegar sauce. Give me a cold Hite lager and a streaming supply of New Seoul's handmade mandu and I'd be set for life. The folks really enjoyed pajun ($12.95), a traditional Korean pancake in which eggy, crepe-like batter is filled with long, green scallions and slivers of citrusy red bell peppers, sautéed and sliced into wedges like a pizza. It's silly how easy this dish is: Use fresh, clean-tasting veggies. Cook to order. Wow your guests. Restaurateurs, please take note.
Of the dozen or so soups, our waitress helped us settle on doenjang jjige ($10.95), a mix of clams, zucchini, tofu, bean sprouts, onion, potatoes, garlic, chilies, and miso-based broth that comes out bubbling in a small iron cauldron. Ladle the soup into bowls adding steamed white rice and you're hit by layers of flavor, from the sweetness of the onion to the pungent aroma of the garlic, the floral bite of the zucchini, and the throaty spice of the chilies. The soups are all made to order. It's amazing more restaurants don't do this. It imparts such clarity and depth. We also tried a superheated bowl of dolsot bibimbob ($12.95), which is as fun to eat as it is to say. The rice dish is filled with bean sprouts, zucchini, bell peppers, carrots, and scallions and topped with an over-easy egg that scrambles against the sides of the hot stone bowl when you mix it around. The result is something like stir-fried rice, but lighter and fresher.
Then comes the main attraction: the barbecue. Korean barbecue is famous for its subtle marriage of flavors and textures, creating the kind of harmonious wallop that chefs from Suwon to San Diego toil toward their entire careers. New Seoul provides all the tools for you to find your own equilibrium. You choose from a selection of meats — short ribs, thin-sliced brisket, two kinds of pork, and chicken — that are grilled on your tabletop. You grab the meat hot off the grill and stuff it inside crisp lettuce leaves to make little wraps. The cool part comes from the wide selection of flavors you can stick inside those pockets, like grilled garlic, onion, scallion, and shiitake, plus rice, salty miso paste, and spicy chili paste.
You're also given a selection of panchan to experiment with, side dishes such as pickled radish, fresh bean sprouts, slivers of zucchini sautéed in garlic, slices of fermented fish cake, and kimchi. New Seoul makes its panchan from scratch, which is impressive given its variety and quality. Kimchi, the fermented cabbage dish most often associated with Korean cuisine, is particularly good here, fragrant and playfully spicy — and they're happy to bring more.
The whole point is variety and balance. Take a bit of galbi ($19.95) — short ribs marinated in garlic, onion, soy sauce, and sugar — and plop it in a leaf with some bean paste, roasted garlic, and grilled onion. The meat, unctuous and hot from the grill, plays off the cool, breezy lettuce; the sweet earthiness of the garlic complements the salty miso. Repeat the process with the spicy, tender, perfectly marinated pork, doeji bulgoki ($15.95). Then try it with shiitakes and kimchi or scallion and rice. The combinations are nearly infinite.
And the 'rents? I had to pry Dad away from the spicy pork, while Mom cooed over the freshness and variety of the panchan. It was their first foray into Korean. I doubt it will be their last. They're converts, thanks to New Seoul, not me.