Korean Garden & RestaurantAllston, MARestaurant
2.5 Star Restaurant (our ratings)
Possibly the best restaurant I’ve been to that I would never eat at.
Review by Johnny Monsarrat
It’s not authentic if it’s not authentic. Owner Tom Shin makes the case to me over lunch. There are plenty of Korean restaurants in Greater Boston, he tells me, but most of them think they’re not viable financially unless they cater to Americans (who don’t want it so spicy) or Chinese (who want it sweeter).
It’s an attitude I can get behind, at first. The restaurant is huge, seating at least 100 people, with a stylish bamboo interior and built-in hot plates on some of the tables. The menu has steakhouse pricing and gives all the signs that this is the upscale place to be. The only concession to refinement is a beer sign in the window.
Tom moved here from Korea in the 1970s and, after school, helped his parents with their home business, a clothing store, for 22 years. But the business wasn’t a huge moneymaker and so in late 2008 he opened this restaurant with the following style: they won’t alter the food. It’s also the reason that the lowest priced lunch special is $9. He’d rather raise the price on the menu than lower the quality of the food.
Fair enough. They seem to do a good job of it. They serve a special every month, like a whole chicken hen, stuffed with ginseng. Tom’s cook is from New York and travels there regularly to keep up on the latest trends in Korean cuisine. And Tom is particularly proud of his “banchan”, a combination plate of appetizers.
Like a steakhouses serve bread and Mexican places serve chips, Korean restaurants typically serve banchan but hold it until the last minute, so you can’t ask for refills. At Korean Garden & Restaurant, the banchan comes out right away. It’s expensive but a way of seducing customers into becoming regulars.
I don’t review restaurants for food critics to read. This is not theoretical to me, like I’m trying to prove to you I’m a man of the world. I prefer to give it to you straight as a regular guy, so you can actually decide where to eat. So here is my regular guy take on the banchan: it’s strange. The 12 side dishes include radish, parsley, beans, kimchi, anchovies, and, seeming out of place, sliced hot dogs with peppers. I try a bunch and it’s good tasting in the “Is this good tasting?” mode you have to be in when you try a completely foreign food. The fish egg soup’s pretty good, though. Banchan is zesty and spicy, and the fresh vegetables have a good crunch to them.
Notably, I left the anchovies alone, but Tom — I need to find a way to get the owners not to sit and stare at me while I try to review their food — makes me eat some. “What kind of reviewer are you? Eat the anchovies!” he says in a friendly tone. I pick one up. It’s about an inch and a half long, with sad little eyes. I’ve never eaten an animal’s head and eyes before. Tom looks at me expectantly. I eat it.
It’s tough, like chewing through beef jerky. Poor little anchovy! I think.
I try a seafood clam soup with tofu, which Tom tells me is popular with the Chinese crowd. It’s spicy & interesting, the consistency of tofu, but in a soup. I’m half-way through it when I wonder what kind of meat tastes so chewy and has stubble on it. It’s squid.
I’ve got nothing against squid conceptually, although I hope when scientists some day learn to speak with them that they forgive the human race, but it’s not an enjoyable chew either. The texture is all wrong to my non-Korean sensibility. It’s not my intention to be disrespectful of other cultures. But I admit it. I didn’t really “get” or enjoy the meal either. Is it disrepectful to say that meat shouldn’t be too tough or too chewy with puckers?
Unfortunately it’s indicative of the other food I tried. Everything comes in a broth. Sam Gae Tangis a hen with rice and ginseng, tasting like baked chicken, but having been boiled whole, picking the meat off is tricky. Kalbi Tang are short ribs, also in broth, but don’t think barbecue ribs. Having been stewed, the ribs taste very tender, very much like a stew, and served boiling hot. Tom informs me that the meat is all fresh, not frozen, and they make all their sauces in house except the soy sauce.
It’s impossible to fault a restaurant that serves Ganjang Gaejang, a crab meal, where they refuse to use raw blue crabs unless they’re pregnant with eggs. It just sounds like Tom and his staff know exactly what they are doing. But when it comes to not bending to suit broad tastes, I’m afraid to say that they succeeded. One of the perqs of restaurant reviews is that after sampling 4-5 dishes, there’s always something to take home for later. For the first time, there’s nothing I want to take home from a restaurant here.
So if you’re not Korean, but you’re looking for something exotic, start with the more accessible fare at other Korean restuarants. Perhaps later you can graduate to the authentic, upscale, and well-crafted cuisine at Korean Garden & Restaurant.
122 Harvard Ave, Allston MA