"What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?" asked Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation. A number of them, come to think of it. Consider participatory meals like fondue, steak on a stone and shabu-shabu, the Japanese delicacy that so perplexed Murray. These festive meals require not only a healthy sense of adventure, but also a considerable amount of labor on the part of the diner. The return on that investment, however, is a culinary escapade where the process is nearly as engaging as the outcome.
Such is the case with Korean-style barbecue, a celebratory affair that places diners squarely in charge. As with Japanese teppanyaki, guests are seated around tables with built-in cooktops. But in this instance, there is no nimble-fingered chef to run the show. (And because the tables seat only four or five, guests aren't forced to play nice with strangers.) In Cleveland, the only place to fully experience Korean BBQ is Seoul Hot Pot, which features four such grill tables.
Meals here start with boriÊcha, a tea made from roasted barley. This nutty, palliative beverage tastes exactly like brewing beer smells. If you prefer the real deal, order a round of OB ($3.95), a crisp Korean lager that goes swimmingly with fiery kimchi. For truly festive occasions, the only logical choice is soju ($7.50), a Korean rice wine best consumed by the gulp.
After a server ignites the grill to preheat, she delivers a vast array of panchan, the pungent side dishes that accompany Korean meals. We counted at least eight different varieties, including those containing spicy cucumber, pickled radish, dried fish, simmered black beans and fermented cabbage. Next comes a tall stack of bright green leaf lettuce, some saucers of red bean paste and a few more containing a thin sesame sauce.
When it appears that our table can support nothing more, out comes the main event. Served in portions large enough for two, the kalbi ($16.95) consists of lengthy ribbons of rosy beef cut from the short rib, meaning that it is well-marbled and deeply flavored. The meat has been marinating in a simple mixture of soy, garlic and sugar. Resting atop the meat is a pair of well-worn kitchen shears.
Here things can go one of two ways. The common method is to snip fun-size pieces of raw beef onto the hot grill. The ill-advised approach is to grill the beef whole then snip (cutting a long, floppy, searing-hot steak with shears can be a little unwieldy). Because the meat is thin, it cooks quickly, making it advisable to grill the beef in stages.
Diners use tongs or chopsticks to flip and grill the meat to desired doneness. When ready, the meat is dipped into a sauce, tucked into a lettuce leaf, and supplemented with rice, stewed garlic and any bits of crunchy panchan one cares to add. Keep in mind that the steak, while amazingly succulent, is rather chewy, making multi-bite bundles a messy business. Keep the packets small enough to pop in your mouth whole. Enjoy, repeat.
If kalbi is the star of Korean BBQ, bulgogi ($13.50) is the supporting actor. Nearly as popular, this flavorful grilled item employs thinner pre-sliced strips of beef. A sweeter marinade and less chewy texture make this dish popular with the uninitiated.
Not that you'll walk away hungry if you don't, but consider starting with a couple of appetizers. Kimbob ($3.95) looks a whole lot like a sliced California Roll, but this seaweed-wrapped log is stuffed with rice, beef, egg and veggies. It makes a great snack. Also familiar looking are the mandu ($4.25), crunchy fried dumplings stuffed with ground meat and vegetables. In many ways, they look and taste like potstickers. If forced to compare the delicious pajun ($4.25) to something else, the likely candidates would be Chinese scallion pancakes or Italian frittatas. These dense, egg-based omelets are studded throughout with green onion, bits of fish and vegetables. Cut into handy wedges, pajun moves faster than pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.
Of course, there is much more to Seoul Hot Pot than the barbecue. The menu has dozens and dozens of authentic home-style items. One is the Korean-favored soybean stew ($7.95), which has the odor of dirty gym socks and is, to say the least, an acquired taste.
For those who have only driven past the rough-and-tumble exterior of this AsiaTown restaurant, you'll be relieved to know that the interior is considerably less intimidating. In fact, it's almost quaint. On weekends, it is a good idea to call ahead and reserve a grill table if you plan on ordering kalbi or bulgogi.