By JOHN ADAMIAN | Hartford Courant
The lunch specials at Seoul BBQ in New Britain are some of the best bargains around. Like the almost-standard complimentary chips-and-salsa brought to the table at most Mexican restaurants, or the slightly less-standard preliminary treat of fried papadams and tangy chutneys at Indian restaurants, Korean cuisine has a tradition of generous built-in extras to get the meal started.
Korean meals include a spread of banchan, or little appetizers, usually consisting of kimchi and other pickled goodies, as well as sweet offerings like beans and root vegetables cooked with a sticky, syrupy coating and a dusting of sesame seeds. Given a side of rice, one could very easily chow down the eight or so small bowls of banchan at Seoul BBQ and consider oneself satisfied. But that’s not how it works.
Korean food may be finally having its moment. Korean taco trucks on the West Coast have helped propel the cuisine into its much-deserved spotlight. And in New York chef David Chang has elevated Korean cooking as well, mingling some of its flavors and techniques with Japanese and Chinese ingredients. Chang, as it happens, went to college in Hartford, at Trinity, but it’s doubtful that he developed his taste for Korean cuisine as an undergrad. But the Hartford area does, in fact, have some pretty good Korean restaurants: in Glastonbury, one tucked away in East Hartford, in West Hartford and now a very good one in New Britain.
Seoul BBQ, not far from Westfarms Mall, is prepared for all kinds of festivities. There are a number of smallish closed-off rooms common at Korean restaurants for private gatherings. The tables in the dining room also double as mini BBQ stations, with the removable sections on the tabletops that turn them into grills and individual exhaust units overhead. The menu also features catering options, for feeding dozens, or platter combos for feeding three-to-five people. Like many Korean restaurants in the region, Seoul BBQ also serves sushi, but when Korean cuisine is on hand, I tend to turn away from most other options. And even after narrowing things down to the Korean portion of the menu, there’s still an overwhelming amount of food, with whole sections devoted to Korean BBQ, cold noodles, stews, stir fry, fish, rice dishes, and chef specials.
A number of dishes have short ribs, some with sliced brisket, others featuring noodles made from sweet potatoes, a special with fresh-water snails, something showcasing beef tongue, and lots of other off-the-beaten-path items. If you long to eat something you won’t find at the Chili’s across the street, Seoul BBQ will satisfy your quest for adventure, but there’s also plenty to please those who aren’t culinary thrill-seekers.
Bulgogi (Korean BBQ) can be had with beef, pork or chicken. Tucked into the rice section of the menu, you’ll find bibim-bap, a hearty spread of beef and stir-fried vegetables in a red chili sauce, served with rice in a hot clay pot, all topped with a fried egg.
If you go in for the auditory flourish of a sizzling and steaming serving dish, like with fajitas, you’ll find a lot to enjoy at Seoul BBQ, as many items on the menu arrive trailing fragrant steam and a giving off pronounced hiss. My daeji bulgogi ttukbaegi, a pork variation on bulgogi, came to my table in something resembling a piece of ancient terra cotta shaped like an upturned temple bell, with a curtain of delicious steam rising from the earthenware bowl. The visual element was as appetizing as the sonic and olfactory ones, with a rich red sauce thick with Korean chili powder, and a hoop of red bell pepper placed atop the pork along with green flashes of sliced scallion and a small bouquet-like tangle of delicate white enoki mushrooms. Cementing the stylish touches was a pair of futuristic-looking metallic chopsticks.
The spread of banchan included cheongpomuk muchim, a gelatinous and tasty mung bean jelly, as well as a spicy zucchini dish and more. Maybe $9.99 isn’t everyone’s idea of a bargain lunch, but one will walk away stuffed. And the whole presentation is very elegant.
All that — style and quantity — wouldn’t amount to much if the food didn’t taste good, but Seoul BBQ is very tasty. My bulgogi achieved the perfect balance of spicy and sweet, and the pork was tender, with just the right amount of fat around the edges. Pieces of cooked onion and zucchini lurked underneath it all.
I was only there for a leisurely lunch, but the list of soju (Korean rice wine) and other spirits, made me think that a trip to Seoul BBQ for a booze-infused dinner might be in order.