A lot of people recommend restaurants. But when Chung Hea Han recommended, I listened. Han is a top food authority in Seoul, South Korea, and founder of a culinary academy there (see story on Page 1). But the restaurant she praised is in Los Angeles, which testifies that we have excellent Korean food here.
Han's advice took me to Siyeon, a cavernous place that opened on Western Avenue last October. Siyeon's vast openness, tempered with plants, Korean design elements and some beautifully etched glass, was not planned but inherited. The building formerly housed a bowling alley. Even now, when you take home a bit of bulkoki, it is packed in a Western Bowl doggie bag, looking to the world outside like a Western Fat Boy burger, which is what the bag advertises.
Beef at Siyeon appears in many forms--barbecued, stewed, in soups and raw--but not as burgers. Let's start with raw, since that is the most unusual. Siyeon's yuk hwe, the Korean version of beef tartare, is marvelous. The long strands of raw meat are lushly seasoned with sesame oil and come with a lemon wedge and thin strips of crisp, juicy pear. Squeeze the lemon over the meat and eat it with the pear for a stunning blend of sensations.
Gal bi chim, a pot of short ribs stewed in sweetened soy sauce, is also very good. The meat, left on the bone, is garnished with long slim strips of egg pancake and a scattering of pine nuts. Green onion tops and a sprig of what looked like sukkat, a Korean green also known as garland chrysanthemum, add color.
Since barbecuing seems fundamental to Korean dining, I dutifully barbecued beef at the table, doing a poor job because the grill was perversely slow. Even the sheerest slice of meat took forever to cook and turned out partially browned and partially raw. But when I left the barbecuing to the kitchen, the results were superb. Rushed to the table on a sizzling platter, chicken bulkoki was the ultimate in barbecued chicken--tender and juicy, simply seasoned but intensely flavored from the grilling.
Sliced cooked beef is one of the additions to bibim bup, a sort of rice salad. Arranged in a bowl are assorted vegetables and the meat, topped with a fried egg sprinkled with sesame seeds. A spoonful of extremely hot red pepper paste is positioned to the side so it can be removed or used sparingly according to taste. The procedure is to upend a bowl of rice into the "salad" bowl and toss everything together. Siyeon's version includes chips of a crisp, bark-like substance that tasted like burned sugar. What the chips are remained a mystery. The waitress couldn't explain. And the Korean name that she supplied brought only a blank look at a nearby Korean market. But encountering new and different foods is one of the reasons for going to places like Siyeon.
Not everything is perfect. Broiled yellow corvina was so salty we couldn't eat it. Hae pa ri nyang, a platter of jellyfish and vegetables in light mustard sauce, was dominated by a large chunk of imitation crab. In my opinion, a restaurant of this caliber shouldn't resort to imitation food. Besides, the big chunk didn't match the shredded look of the other ingredients. The dish would have been better without it.
Meals at Siyeon include a variety of side dishes. There will be one or more types of kimchi and tidbits such as salty, sweet dried fish, marinated eggplant strands, oysters in hot sauce, marinated spinach, radish and other things that make great snacking. Once, we were given a bowl of lettuce leaves in a wonderful dressing that included sesame oil and red pepper. But I never saw that again.
Dessert is a choice of ice cream or coffee. It seemed odd to be served ice cream fast food style in a little carton bearing the name of the manufacturer. Last time, this had changed to soft ice cream, swirled to a point in a dessert glass, a more suitable presentation for a restaurant.
The menu includes many more Korean dishes. There is Japanese food, too, and a separate dining room with a sushi bar. Sample prices are $7.25 for yuk hwe, $6.95 for chicken bulkoki, $6.25 for gal bi chim and $5.95 for bi bim bup.
Siyeon Restaurant, 721 S. Western Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 382-2277. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Accepts MasterCard, Visa, American Express. Validated parking in lot on north side.