Korean movie series are my soju. It’s for celebration, depression, even seeking motivation. I got motivated to learn Korean and to try Korean food. I made a couple of attempts in College Station, but it’s not a good idea to judge Korean cuisine from a local Chinese restaurant. The urge to understand why their food looks so appealing in movies overtook the resistance against chili pepper. So we went to Bellaire the first weekend I got home, to a Korean buffet.
Korean Garden Grille has a spacious feel (again, something of Texas that I will miss). I made a point to sample everything, and I almost accomplished my goal. I tried “beef seaweed soup” (no beef was visible, so I assume it was beef flavored seaweed soup?), 11 kinds of kimchi (not knowing most of the Korean names nor the veggie names), bulgogi, japchae (stirfried cellophane noodle), 7 kinds of fried egg/veggie (again, not knowing either the Korean names or the veggie names). The kimchi was mostly sour (a little more sour than pickled daikon and carrots, not as salty as pickles, much less aggressive on the back of the throat than the French pickled cornichon).
Above image: From left to right, first row: napa cabbage (wombok/baechu/cải bách thảo), don’t-know, don’t-know radish, bean sprouts; second row: not-sure seaweed, daikon-maybe? kohlrabi, no-idea. I tried a couple of angry-looking-red-peppered kimchi the angry-looking red-peppered odeng (first thing in the image below), but they weren’t too spicy (well, at least not in small quantities), the fried octopus (red, bottom right) was quite tongue-catching actually.
I finished a half mini-bowl of rice with just one piece of those. Now I’ve never been to a Korean restaurant before nor have I any Korean friends, so I’m just judging from the Korean movies I’ve watched: this place is typical Korean, rice is plentiful and brought out at the beginning (just like water), since (again, movie trivia) Koreans consider good eats cannot be without rice.
It’s also nice that the place has a grill at the table, and we can sizzle as much meat and shrimp as we want. Spicy smoke, fatty sound, savory emanation. Right next to a plate of fresh green-leaf lettuce (that’s right, not iceberg lettuce).
The meat is a little sweet, which is perfect. I am never a fan of eating uncooked veggie with cooked food. I think putting fresh bean sprouts into a bowl of hot phở is hideous, the textures just don’t cooperate. But nothing beats a lettuce wrap with beautifully-browned, well-cooked, well-seasoned meat inside. It’s marvelous. Although busy gorging I was, I also watched the Korean hostess got herself a plate: she wrapped a spoonful of rice and a piece of meat inside a lettuce leaf, making it the size of a tennis ball, and put the whole thing in her mouth at once. Now that is skill.
The seaweed soup is warm and slender, almost like refreshment. Little mom preferred the daikon soup. Many thumbs up. I will definitely try more Korean food. Now, for spice-inclined diners, the taste might be a little too plain (except the kimchi) compared to other Asian cuisines, and it seems like not much salt was used. Cost: about $60 for 3 people. Sure, this is much higher than Chinese buffet, a notch above Kim Son Vietnamese buffet, but the quality is well worth it. I have proof.
UPDATE (July 2010): This restaurant is now closed, replaced by Saigon Buffet (opened May 2011).