After writing an article on No Da Gi two years ago, I received a three-page letter from a man who asked me not to publish his name or address. "Although an American and an occidental, I have spent some fourteen of the past twenty three years [in Korea] in bits and pieces measurable in years. I take every opportunity to introduce people I meet to the joys and pleasures of the Korean cuisine -- one of the best developed in the Orient. . . . Sadly, I thought your review . . . drive[s] people away from Korean food. . . . I just wish your review would stimulate some interest in the very old, very excellent Korean cuisine."
In a small way, I was aghast. I like Korean food. From a trip to Korea years ago, I still remember fondly the smell of garlic on the train platforms. Had I irresponsibly not made clear that I liked my dinner at No Da Gi? It is one of my kinds of places. I recommended it to friends when it was on Maryland Avenue in a basement and I recommend it now in its new location, in much larger, good-natured rooms at 25th and Charles streets, where Love's passed a great many years.
The old No Da Gi served intriguing, lively Korean food. So does the New No Da Gi, but now there's more space in which to talk and watch people. We sat next to a table of Asian students exchanging anecdotes in English about their parents' attitudes toward them, about their modernity and their distance from home. Across the way, children played quietly on a carpeted stairway that led to three dining rooms on the second floor for non-smokers.
We began by ordering No. 22, a sashimi appetizer ($7.95), because one of my companions had never eaten raw fish. We received impeccably fresh slices of rockfish, tuna, salmon and yellowtail, together with wasabi, the tongue-tingling green Japanese horseradish, and thin slices of a pickled ginger that was subtly sweeter than any we'd had before. (Is raw fish safe? I tend to hope it has been frozen at subzero temperatures, doing in most of what doesn't belong in it. Maybe I'm living dangerously.)
We also ordered No. 55, chicken yakitori ($6.95), an appetizer of Japanese-style shish kebab. Dry chicken and a dull, insipid sweet sauce made it the one dish of the evening none of us would order again.
All three of our main dishes were delicious. No. 137, pork %J marinated in special sauce ($11.50), was a gorgeous, chokingly hot dish reminiscent of Hungarian goulash, with red peppers, large onions and the taste of paprika, but unmistakably Korean with an explosive volume of fine-chopped garlic and green onions. I ate the leftovers for lunch on a particularly cold day soon after, and saw a possible connection between Seoul's average January high of 32 degrees Fahrenheit and the Korean national passion for chili-heat.
No. 164, hot pepper, onion and oyster with a Korean-style pancake ($8), was a marvelous meal in itself, consisting of more than a half-dozen pancakes about 8 inches in diameter, cut in two and arranged attractively on a large platter. The pancakes, about 1/4 -inch thick, were green with scallion stalks, red with peppers, pale with onion and fresh oysters, and golden brown from contact with the grill. As intended, we dipped the pancakes in a zesty mixture that was mostly soy but partly sesame seeds and garlic.
No. 64, seafood mustard ($14.50), came long after everything else. As a consequence, we ate little of it at the restaurant, so I fascinated everyone at lunch next day when I forked its odd and interesting ingredients out of the takeout container. It was a cold dish from the beginning, and likable in winter, but probably perfection in July.
Long needles of cut zucchini, green at the tip, were combined with shafts of red pepper, spikes of sea leg, small shrimp, pale yellow strands of sea urchin thin as paper and as long as spaghetti, and columns of jellyfish, dark along one edge, pale along the cut side, glistening like whipped gelatin. Its chunkiest, most visible ingredient was short cylinders of octopus, slashed all around, making it look like a fleshy white flower.
For contrast, a beautiful heap of mandarin orange segments lay to one side. The combination offered wonderful textural contrast -- slithery, chewy, crispy, soft and crunchy all together, and tastes that were refreshing, light and delicate. A vibrant, thin, hot yellow sauce, served separately, shouted garlic and mustard. To do things right, we would have poured it on top, but exercising the foreigners' prerogative to do things wrong, we sampled it in single spoonfuls.
Finally, we were brought gratis samples of a seaweed salad we saw as we came in: Green and glistening, it tasted like something that was probably very good for us. We drank a large container of sake ($10.95) with our dinners, and then a bottle of Kirin beer ($2.95). Our waitress' fluent English and hospitable, accommodating manner gave us further reason to think we could come often to the New No Da Gi. We already knew we liked its affordable prices and good food.Next: Orchard Market
NEW NO DA GI, 2501-03 N. Charles St., (410) 235-4846
Thursdays to Tuesdays 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
ACCEPTS: Major credit cards
FEATURES: Korean, Chinese and Japanese food
NO-SMOKING AREA: Yes
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No