At U-Jung Kwan, a Far East adventure


March 23, 2000|By David Richardson and Cameron Barry | David Richardson and Cameron Barry,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Before eating at U Jung, our experience with Korean food was, admittedly, limited. It didn't help that spelling and syntax are so flexible on U Jung's menu (both English and phonetically spelled Korean words) that we could not be sure what was what.

Luckily, the waitstaff sized us up as soon as we came in and sent us an English-speaking server, the delightful In Won Yom, who dealt with our ignorance with humor and grace. Thanks to her ministrations, we had a splendid meal.

The food was so good that we might have done just fine on our own. However, many non-Koreans -- including us -- could be turned off by the sound of such traditional fare as jae jang kuk (vegetable and noodle soup with cow's blood and bone) or gop chang gui (marinated beef intestine). Those dishes might leave one tempted to order from the menu's many Japanese or Chinese selections, but since you can get sushi or fried rice at the Giant now, our advice is to get yourself a guide and explore the wonders of Korean cuisine.

Korean meals start with panchan (or banchan), a dozen or so small bowls filled with delicacies, each with its own clear and forceful taste or texture. The dishes vary with the season, region or restaurant. Ours included marinated bean sprouts; bok choy; lotus root (each with enough chili to liven up every bite); seasoned steamed spinach; potato salad and grated potato (to cool the palate); tiny, dried anchovies; crisp, spicy pickled vegetables (including kimchi, Korea's delicious and fiery-hot pickled cabbage); as well as kochu jang, an extraordinary barley, soy and pepper dipping sauce.

At U Jung (which translates in English to "existence of friendship"), you won't have long to wait before your main courses arrive, but the panchan stays on the table for sampling or palate refreshment throughout the meal.

At In Won Yom's suggestion, we tried a very generous array of dishes. The best-known Korean dishes are barbecues of beef and pork such as bulgoki (or bulgogi, which translates as "fire beef" and at U Jung is boneless beef ribs). These are often cooked at the table. The version we tried, kalbi gui, consisted of marinated and broiled beef ribs brought to the table without the tableside fuss, but with all the savory heat and flavor of the dish. Arriving with it was a sublime Korean-style pancake called pajun, filled with scallions, shrimp and squid.

We also sampled chap cha, a dish of almost impossibly thin noodles mixed with spicy pork and vegetables, and "fried chicken garlic flavor." While the latter sounded somewhat pedestrian, it was highly recommended and turned out to be worth a try. Piquant, garlicky and a little sweet, it offered a nice contrast to the rest of the meal.

Finally, In Won Yom brought out a plate of sigumchi namul, steamed spinach with sesame and garlic, which more than held its own among a tableful of mighty flavors.

Another dish that we tried on a previous occasion is worth mentioning. Stew, called tang or jigae, and soup, called kuk or tang, are staples of Korean cuisine. Kimchi jigae -- sliced pork, tofu and kimchi in a rich, tangy broth -- made a soul-satisfying lunch on one of this past winter's rare, truly cold days.

According to glossy magazines such as New York and InStyle, Korean food is becoming the rage in New York and Los Angeles. Happily, you won't have to wait the requisite few years before the fashion makes its way to Baltimore. It's already here; U Jung is just one of many Korean restaurants in the area.

U Jung, plain, clean and not particularly fashionable, offers an extensive selection of dishes with big, bold flavors, surprising combinations and fresh ingredients that characterize Korea's fiery, exotic and altogether extraordinary cuisine.

U Jung Kwan

12 W. 20th St. 410-230-0422

Hours: Open for lunch and dinner daily (till 4 a.m.)

Credit cards: AE,MC,V

Prices: $5.95-$9.95 for lunch; $6.95-$21.95 for dinner

Food: ***1/2

Service: ***1/2

Atmosphere: **

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