A Taste Of Korea In Towson

DINING OUT

June 13, 1993|By ELIZABETH LARGE

Ko Ryeo Korean Japanese Restaurant, 321 York Rd., Towson, (410) 823-6650. Open every day for lunch and dinner. Major credit cards. No-smoking area: yes. Wheelchair-accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $4.95-$7.95; entrees, $7.95-$28.95.

My introduction to Korean food came many years ago at the Seoul, which was then the restaurant in the Carlyle Apartments on University Parkway. (It later moved to Towson.) The owners were Korean, but most of the dishes on the menu were Chinese. You could get a Korean beef dish, though, and with it came a dish of pickled cabbage, called kim chee, which we turned up our noses at. (It was like being served a hot dog and assuming that was all there was to Texas barbecue.)

With the growth of Baltimore's Korean community, things have changed. In the same spot where the Seoul moved (and finally closed), we had kim chee some 20 years later. Our table was covered with little bowls filled with bits of different vegetables (including Chinese cabbage) along with tofu, cubes of omelet and shredded beef -- variously pickled and spiced. Some were vinegary, some salty, some fiery hot. Textures, flavors and colors differed tremendously, all designed to pique the appetite.

You don't have to order kim chee specially at Ko Ryeo; it comes with your meal. That's the easy part of eating here. The hard part is figuring out what your meal is going to be, unless you're well versed in the cuisine -- the menu isn't geared toward introducing Westerners to Korean food. The novice will probably just see customers having barbecue cooked at their table, smell how good it smells, and decide on the spot: "I'll have that."

This isn't necessarily the cowardly thing to do. You can havbarbecued tongue, or barbecued three layers of pork belly (whatever that is exactly). If two or more people order barbecue, the waitress will cook it at your table, which is fun but has two hazards. The grill takes up a lot of room, and the smoke can be irritating. We had bulgogi, sliced sirloin, and kalbi gui, beef short ribs (which the waitress not only cooks at the table, but bones -- with a pair of scissors!). Both are marinated in the same engaging barbecue sauce, and it's a toss-up as to which I'd recommend: The short ribs are fattier, but have more flavor.

To eat the barbecue, you wrap it with rice and a bit of spicy beapaste in a crisp romaine lettuce leaf. With the miso soup and kim chee that come with it, it's a good introductory meal.

But let's say you're ready to move on to something a bit moradventurous. You might try hwe dup bap, which any sushi fancier should like. This is a truly beautiful creation: a large bowl filled with warm rice on the bottom, shredded lettuce and raw fish, the whole decorated with emerald green seaweed and bright orange roe. (My one complaint is the inclusion of "sea legs," imitation crab legs, with the other fish.)

You add the fiery salad dressing yourself, and then toss the dish with a large spoon. Korean friends tell me you're supposed to eat it with the spoon, not chopsticks.

Pasta lovers might try one of the Korean noodle dishes, such anaeng myun. It's a cold dish -- good for this time of year, but it wouldn't be to everyone's taste. The chilled beef broth is filled with noodles (although not the buckwheat ones the menu promises), vegetables sliced tissue-paper thin and two hard-boiled egg halves. On the side is red chili paste; you control how spicy-hot you want the dish.

We stuck to the Korean food all through our meal, although KRyeo does have Japanese offerings -- particularly sushi. We started with a mung bean pancake, which was less interesting than either the dumplings or the skewered chicken appetizers. The dumplings, filled with minced vegetables and beef, were greasy but nice and crisp. And almost anyone would like the tidbits of chicken marinated in a barbecue sauce, skewered with green pepper and onion and grilled.

Ko Ryeo looks almost exactly like I remember its predecessorthe long ramp down to the dining rooms; the pleasant, unremarkable decor; the comfortable booths.

The staff doesn't speak much English, and that can be a problem. On the other hand, it gives the restaurant an authentic feel, as does the fact that most of the clientele seem to be of Korean descent.

"That doesn't look like chocolate," my chocoholic daughter said suspiciously when the waitress brought navel orange slices to end our meal. Orange slices were exactly what I wanted after this meal of pickled foods and highly spiced sauces; but if you feel the way she did, not to worry. Borders Bookstore is a few doors away; and Borders has an espresso bar with elaborate desserts and good coffees. Chocolate biscotti actually go very well with a dinner of raw fish and seaweed.

Next: Tandoor Palace

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