My mom, as always, is thinking. And, as always, she's come up with a great idea.
"A laminated plastic sheet," she muses, peering over the 13 little dishes of pickles with which our server has blanketed the table. "With pictures. Like they do for sushi, so we know what we're eating. So we don't have to drive the server crazy asking questions. Maybe then more people would be brave enough to come in and try Korean food."
Mom and I aren't shy about food. We both love to travel the more interestingly weird places, the better. We both love to wander ethnic marketplaces wherever we are, curious about local cooking and more than willing to taste anything. She's the one I can count on, when I've found something exceptionally distasteful, to take it from me, stick it in her mouth and agree: "Oh, that's bad." (It's universal human nature that, when we find something disgusting, we immediately insist that others around us try it, too.)
We're not shy about asking questions, sometimes tumbling over ourselves in our bright-eyed haste to explore. "What's that? Why? How does it work? What happens when . . ."
We've asked our server at the new Tabletop Grill & Sushi to explain the monument of pickles before us. His polite reply: "Kimchee."
Well, thanks. That we knew. Kimchee is the lord of the traditional Korean panchan, that wide assortment of mini bites that accompanies every traditional meal. What we've got now is a dizzying array of fermented vegetables, but exactly what vegetables, we're not sure.
There are more than 100 varieties of kimchee, essentially anything that can be doused with lots of spicy-hot red pepper, different spices and perhaps even extraordinarily pungent fish sauce, then aged. The most popular kimchee is napa cabbage, and that I recognize, but the remaining 12 impossibles look like maybe bean sprouts, cucumber, daikon, garlic heads, turnip and, well, a bunch of other stuff. There might be todok, a mountain root, but don't hold me to that.
Not that it matters so much, because in fine Korean tradition, no one cares if we eat it or not. Koreans aren't exactly crazy about it themselves; before refrigeration was common, kimchee fed families during the winter months. Hungry souls made large amounts of the pickles, put them in jars and buried them underground to find at least a little bit of chill. It was a staple mainly because it was already bad and couldn't get any worse when no other food was available. It's not too surprising that the number of side dishes represents the wealth of the family; no one may eat much of it, but the presentation and display is crucial to a fine meal.
Mom and I are trying, tweezing chopsticks for bites of various this and that, surprised at how mellow and savory the cucumber is, rising out of our seats in twisted pleasure at the tear-inducing, fiery cabbage. When our server returns bearing our entree plates, he looks at us silently, not saying a word to these two silly Americans treating a celebratory offering as we would chips and salsa.
We've ordered way too much, but he didn't say anything about that either, only quietly offering that we've "got plenty" when we consider adding some bibimbap, that classic combination of rice and vegetables such as bean sprouts, carrots and spinach, maybe some meat or seafood, topped with a cooked or raw egg and served in a hot stone bowl with red-pepper sauce. (I feel pretty cool spouting knowledge of bibimbop to Mom; it was served on my Korean Air flight to Tokyo last year. But Mom has actually been to Korea, where I suspect they serve better than airline food. In good Mom form, though, she keeps quiet.)
The quantity of plates strewn before us is almost embarrassing, as if we could be so shamed. "Why the romaine?" Mom queries. To wrap chunks of ginseng kalbi, of course, our server replies smoothly. The barbecued beef short ribs marinated in ginseng arrive on a sizzling platter bedded with onions, and we're to roll bits with thick red-chile paste and sliced jalapeños like "a Korean taco." What a dish it's all pretty simple, but the beef is top-quality, it's been expertly grilled, the sauce is only vaguely sweet (may wasps storm the kitchens of restaurants that send everything out soaking in teriyaki sugar) and, for once, my noble dog Santiago is denied his accustomed leftover bone. Mom and I gnaw every last bit of meat, juice and beauty from each rib.
As its name implies, Tabletop offers tabletop cooking, with centerpieces of shiny stainless-steel grills. If we want to do the work ourselves, Mom and I could grill our own bulgogi, thin slices of rib eye marinated in sugar, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil and possibly kiwi (the fruit's acidity acts as a tenderizer). The thin slices cook in minutes, but we're enjoying being served too much to cook on our own.
"Why the scissors?" I wonder aloud as a pair of gleaming red-handled slicers decorates the top of haemul pajun. It's a fat pancake looking a lot like egg foo yung, striped with generous amounts of seafood and scallions. The grilled cake overlaps its more-than-dinner-size platter, and the only way to navigate bites to the tiny little saucers that Tabletop considers plates is to slice it. Pillowy, stringy, soft, crisp, salty and mild for a few short minutes Mom and I are too happily distracted to concoct new questions.
Scissors come with han bang sam gae tang, too (say that a few times fast!). This time, they're summoned to cut apart a whole Cornish hen, its pimply white skin shrouded in shallots and bobbing in a broth that's so hot it literally shrieks bubbles in its stone pot. The soup tastes pretty much of nothing except Asian herbs (an earthy, grassy, dusty tone that's distinctive, if not disturbing, to those not expecting it), made uproarious when I stupidly take a chomp of whole ginseng root. This is a flavoring agent, a medicinal addition, a harsh, vulgar creation not meant to be eaten straight, much like Thai galangal or untrimmed lemongrass. I immediately offer the branch to Mom, who gleefully bites and agrees it's gross. But the hen itself is fantastic, fleshy-plump, stuffed with rice and pulled from the bone to be rolled in pepper-salt or coarse rock salt. A few bites of white rice served in nuclear metal bowls, a dip of chile paste, some of those whatever pickles, and I'm a Korean convert.
We're not done yet, though. We'd chickened out for a second, and ordered a safe standby, saewoo bokum, pan-fried shrimp in chile sauce. Ultimately, it's the dish we ignore. The tail-on shrimp are stellar, firm and meaty, mixed with zucchini, mushrooms and onion in a vibrant glittering sauce. Maybe it's because we know how to eat it, this perfect dish, but we're bored. Curiosity now draws us in new, wild directions. We can't wait to return and dive into min ah maeun tang (spicy croaker fish with vegetables), oh daeji (marinated squid and pork) or yuk hae (seasoned shredded raw beef over steamed rice).
Some truth. When I called to make sure Tabletop actually existed it's surprising how many places announce openings, and then don't the friendly host asked if I was expecting Korean or sushi. His sushi chef, he explained, had disappeared, and only a limited Japanese menu was available. I was quietly sad. Sushi is my comfort food, safety in a port of scary dining experiences.
Yet now, I'm so glad for the sashimi chef's exodus. The only thing we ordered from that part of the sleek, wood-rich, high-tech-lighted, can-this-classy-joint-really-be-a-west-side-operation was seaweed salad. Probably the best seaweed salad I've ever had, too, slender like floss, crisp yet jellyfish-rubbery, slightly salty, and imbued with bits of pepper and ice crystals. To have defaulted to a California roll would have been criminal.
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Desserts aren't big in Korea; we're presented with a cup of sweetened rice water, which our server, anticipating our "who-what-where-when-how" chorus, quickly explains is a treat designed to cleanse oils from our bodies. It's light, fresh and, yes, we feel cleaner for having sipped it.
As we leave, Mom wonders whether it would be rude to return, order a few dishes, and ask that the kimchee parade remain in the kitchen. "There's no way to eat it all, and it's so wasteful," she says.
I figure that would be just fine. If it's a display of wealth that inspires the presentation, there's no doubt in my mind that Tabletop should be one of our most-favored Korean restaurants, once the word gets around. Food this good doesn't need any props to show off, and this cash register deserves to ring mightily.
As for those laminated sheets, a little research finds that an L.A. fast-food operation has already figured it out. Han's Bibimbap restaurant educates customers with place mats that explain how to eat the dishes and list each ingredient and its nutritional attributes. But what about those pickles?