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By Suzanne Parker
I recently had the privilege of dining with Ishle Yi Park, the poet laureate of Queens, who graciously acted as my gastronomic guide to Korean comestibles.
I asked her to choose a destination with traditional fare favored by the Queens Korean community. She led me to Sulrak Garden in Flushing, a Korean restaurant featuring actual oak (rather than charcoal briquettes) in its tabletop barbecues, a feature that she assured me distinguishes it from most of its competitors.
Sulrak Gardens ambiance is the real deal. It is neither hokey with Oriental kitsch nor Spartan in its austerity. It feels balanced.
Each table is fitted with a circular barbecue pit contraption that is powered by a gas burner that ignites the oak chunks placed on top. The eating utensils consist of chopsticks and a long-handled fork. Korean diners rely on the spoon not only for liquids such as soups but also for rice. Koreans do not eat rice with chopsticks. Chopsticks are reserved for strips or chunks of meat or vegetables. Koreans do not lift their rice bowls like the Chinese do. Perhaps this is because of their penchant for mixing other ingredients in with their rice, diminishing its tendency to stick to itself in clumps.
I left the ordering to Park, indicating that I would like to try representative dishes from all categories of Korean cuisine. Taking me at my word, this lovely, willowy young woman attacked the menu like Grant took Richmond, sparing nothing.
The indispensable essentials of a Korean meal are rice, soup and panchan little dishes of foods that do triple duty as hors doeuvres, side dishes and condiments. The panchan and barley tea were the first items to arrive at our table. Its permissible to start picking at the panchan while waiting for the rest of the meal to arrive. Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage) is the most famous and ubiquitous panchan, but we were also served a variety of tasty tidbits including pickled Korean radish (kaktugi kimchi), crab, dried squid, sea weed, salad and hot bean paste.
We sipped a spicy version of Sul Rung Tang, an oxtail soup, from our long-handled spoons. The soup consists of long-simmered beef and bone marrow broth with noodles and pieces of brisket. We relieved the spiciness with spoonfuls of the rice. Next we attacked some delicious scallion pancakes (pa jun), dipping them in the soy-based sauce. Delish! We also sampled a gae lan chim, a subtle preparation of eggs steamed with scallions.
I hesitate to call the main event of this meal the entrée, as that concept really doesnt apply to the Korean style of dining. Everything is eaten together, more or less. Nevertheless, I cant help but think of the bulgogi (meat) as the centerpiece of the meal. Strips of marinated short ribs of beef were cooked on our built-in barbecue, along with plenty of garlic. As we removed the cooked pieces of beef with our chopsticks, the waitress added more to the grill sliced garlic grilled in a little foil cup.
As the beef cooks, the diner takes a spoonful of rice, places a strip of the beef on the rice, adds some hot bean paste to taste and then enfolds this inside a lettuce leaf along with some salad. Dont forget to add a few slices of the grilled garlic. The tantalizing result is something like fajitas but healthier. Definitely delicious.
I asked Park why she thought Korean cuisine was so spicy. Ask a poet a question and, of course, youll get a poetic answer. She related to me the Korean creation myth. A god told a she-bear and a tigress that if they could exist on nothing but garlic in a cave for 100 days they could become human beings. The bear endured the hardship (but not the tiger, who caved after very little time in the cave) and was rewarded not only with human being-ness but later married the god. The moral of this parable is about perseverance and patience eventually paying off, so eat your garlic, children.
We cleansed our palates with sujunggwa, a refreshing persimmon punch flavored with cinnamon and garnished with floating pine nuts.
The Bottom Line
Korean fare is less austere than Japanese and less greasy than Chinese. Koreans are proud of the healthfulness of their delectable cuisine. Spicy food lovers can kick their dishes up as many notches as they please with the addition of the panchan. Those with tamer palates can enjoy their meal by judiciously avoiding the hot stuff. Sulrak Garden Restaurant is an authentic yet accessible place to enjoy first-rate Korean food.
Sulrak Garden Restaurant
154-01 Northern Blvd., Flushing
Setting: Typical Korean
Hours: L&D daily
Reservations: Recommended on weekends
Parking: Valet or street parking may be found along the residential side streets
Credit cards: Yes
Noise level: Acceptable
Handicap accessible: Yes
Sul Rung Tang[[see above]] (beef and bone marrow soup with noodles and pieces of brisket) $7.95
Bibimbab (rice with assorted vegetables) $8.95
Ha Mul Pa Jun (Korean-style crispy rice flour pancakes made with finely chopped assortment of seafood and scallions)
Saeng Kal Bi Gui (chunks of boneless part of short ribs of beef marinated in special sauce for barbecue at table) $17.95
Bi Bim Naeng Myung (buckwheat vermicelli noodles topped with spicy sauce served cold) $9.95
©2004 Community Newspaper Group
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