Going, Going, Gaon!
Korean restaurant provides tutorial for exotic cuisine
By Erica Wayne 05/24/2012
While you’re reading this review, my husband and I will be in Seoul, South Korea, for yet another electrical engineering conference. Frankly, I wasn’t looking forward to the trip all that much, especially after trying Korean barbecue at one of the chains that seem to have mushroomed in Southern California over the past few years. Lax service, little explanation, slow grills and s’mores for dessert? Give me a break!
Authentic Korean cuisine is something I’ve explored very little over the years and, I admit, my level of knowledge is abysmal. So, of course, I grabbed the LA Weekly’s March Seoul Food issue, with Jonathan Gold’s List of 60 Korean Dishes Every Angeleno Should Know. (I failed!) But I starred the items that sounded the best and packed the pullout to take with us.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, my friend, Pam, and I decided to lunch at the local independent Korean restaurant that took over the space Dino’s vacated in 2010. Gaon has banners and signs plastered to its façade offering “All You Can Eat” lunches and dinners; but I’d already had all I wanted of all you can eat. Instead, we decided we’d give some of the kitchen-made dishes a try.
The first thing we noticed was that most of the clientele was Asian, a good sign. Even better was our server, a kind and capable college student named Clara, who took as much time as we needed (a lot) to clarify the long and intricate menu (well-annotated in English, but still inspiring questions like: Is this spicy? Is this too much like the other stuff we thought we’d order? And, what are all these things in the little dishes you just brought, and what do we eat them with?)
Once we were down with the basics, we were ready to make our choices. To start, from the appetizer menu, japchae ($9.95), which Gold says “is as unavoidable in Korean meals as potato salad is at an Alabama picnic.” Well, if they’re like the ones at Gaon, I’ll be delighted. Glass noodles and assorted vegetables (scallion, carrot and cloud ear mushrooms) stir-fried in a house sauce with more than a hint of sesame, they make a great introduction to Korean cooking.
So does the dolsot bibimbap ($11.95), a stone bowl heated to a formidable temperature, containing a bed of white rice topped with sautéed, seasoned vegetables and fermented chili pepper paste. Meat (we picked chicken) and a fried egg were added at the table by Clara, who then folded everything together into a tasty mélange and scraped the bottom, where the rice had sizzled itself to a crisp. It came with a bowl of garbi tang, a simple soup made from simmered beef ribs and radish in a beef stock.
Our last selection was the Gaon Special Combination or “ssam bap” ($11.95), which consisted of bulgogi (choice of spicy beef, chicken, pork or octopus), rice, steamed cabbage, carrot, cucumber, peppers, sauce and lots of herbal foliage, including sesame leaf, cilantro and a couple even Clara couldn’t identify for us. These components are supposed to be wrapped neatly in huge lettuce leaves. (Wrap, we managed; neat, not so much; enjoy, definitely!) A bowl of rich, miso-based soup (den jang jigae) with tofu, beef, mushrooms, squash, onion and cabbage accompanied the ssam bap.
Before any of these main dishes got to our table, we had already been served with a variety of “banchan,” or small side dishes: boiled potato with green beans, broccoli, potato salad, squash, cabbage kimchi and radish kimchi. And after we were through our meal, little bowls of refreshing kabocha pumpkin puree spiked with ginger juice, almost the consistency of tea, were presented for dessert.
There are so many tempting things on Gaon’s menu that a number of future trips will be necessary to try them all. Among the most appealing appetizers is pa jeon, the common scallion-studded, rice flour pancake ubiquitous in Korea. Gaon makes its with seafood and vegetables ($8.95). Mandu, the Korean variant on gyoza or potstickers, cost $6.95 if stuffed with vegetables, $7.95 with beef.
In the menu section dedicated to “traditional” recipes are several seafood preps I’m aiming to sample: broiled mackerel ($15.95), miso-marinated black cod ($18.95), sautéed spicy monkfish ($28.99) and steamed cod with tofu ($25.95). Gaon also serves what Gold says is “almost certainly” his favorite Korean dish, “bo ssam” ($24.99): simmered pork belly, raw oysters, spicy daikon with miso paste and cabbage leaves for tucking the ingredients into nice edible envelopes.
Several versions of all-you-can-eat barbeque are available, ranging from around $17 to $50, depending on the number and types of meats you choose to include. These aren’t a major draw for me, but Gaon’s Lotus Leaf 11-Course Menu (only $24.99 per person, minimum of two people), which must be ordered at least one day in advance, definitely is.
The meal consists of steamed lotus leaf rice; shredded mung bean jelly with beef and cucumber; seasonal vegetable with strawberry sauce; assorted vegetables, beef and crabmeat with edible flower crepes and mustard dip; short ribs; broiled salmon; pan-fried halibut with Italian squash and stuffed Korean green pepper; miso soup with beef, mushroom and tofu; sautéed mountain vegetable, bell flower root and royal fern; sweet kabocha punch; and sweet rice crepe with honey. What a deal!
Before we left, Clara explained the complex and fascinating workings of the table barbeques and wished me safe journey. But there was one question I neglected to ask: the meaning of the restaurant’s name. (Googling hasn’t helped.) I’ll be sure to get the answer when we return. Meanwhile, though, thanks to Gaon (and Gold) for great trip-preparation; my own translation is simply “delicious.”
2063 E. Colorado Blvd.,
Beer and wine