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Seoul-Satisfying Traditions

August 25, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

On nights off, sometimes I go with a big group of friends to Soot Bull Jeep or one of the other Koreatown barbecue houses. We gather around the table, drinking beer, talking and turning delicious kalbi, or short ribs, on the tabletop grill. The air is hazy with smoke; the mood, friendly and raucous.

The new Seoul Jung (House of Seoul) in the Omni Hotel offers a more refined Korean dining experience. The hotel, owned by Korean Airlines, has seemingly spared no expense. Tabletops here, inset with barbecues, are polished green granite.Booths are leather and tapestry, and intricate wood paneling frames reproductions of Korean master paintings. Gracious women servers, their name tags pinned on dark brocade vests, set out a dizzying array of side dishes, pause to tend meats on the barbecue or swirl noodles into casseroles over the gas flame.

The place appears to be packed every night with a mostly young, urban Korean crowd and a scattering of non-Koreans. One night recently, five of us slid into a luxurious booth and ordered a round of appetizers. After a green salad dressed with a spunky chile-spiked dressing came a bright red ball of yook hwe, beef tartare topped with a quail's egg yolk and tossed in a light sesame and soy dressing with shreds of crisp, sweet Asian pear as a counterpoint. Jun bok juk, a rice porridge containing thin slices of abalone, is as delicate as a watercolor wash. But sweet pumpkin porridge, a deep yellow-orange puree, is cloying after a few spoonfuls. And when our order of mandu, pan-fried dumplings with a pork and beef stuffing, arrive, we are surprised but pleased that the platter holds eight or nine luscious mandu. (We hadn't noticed the words "two portions per order" at the top of the menu.)

Enticed by the wafting aromas to our left and right, we also try the barbecue. Kalbi are marvelously flavorful, caramelized at the edges. Beef rib eye is a bit dry, but the pork, stained orange by its chile marinade, is entirely satisfying. Our waiter patiently explains how to smear a little bean paste on a ruffled lettuce leaf, add a morsel or two of the barbecued meats, a few strands of pickled daikon, a dab of kimchi, and then roll it all into a neat packet. This relaxing ritual is accompanied by myriad side dishes, including briny fish roe, diminutive zucchini pancakes and kimchi, ranging from the delicately mild to the somewhat fiery.

On several later visits to sample chef Seuk Soo Kim's cooking (Kim is formerly of Woo Lae Oak in Beverly Hills), I have both hits and misses. Fried items are sometimes greasy. And I wouldn't order the Korean-style sashimi again, primarily because of the quality of the fish, some of it still half-frozen. (Koreans roll the sashimi in a lettuce leaf with fresh or pickled garlic, sliced chile and bean paste.)

But I enjoyed the hearty dol-sot bi bim bap, a meal-in-a-bowl of rice topped with a raw egg yolk, strips of rib-eye meat, shiitake mushrooms and vegetables. The idea is to season it with some fermented bean and chile pastes and toss it like a salad. Served in a sizzling stoneware pot, the rice continues to cook, developing a wonderfully crunchy crust. There's a terrific kim chee chi ge, too, a rustic blend laced with pork, soft pickled cabbage leaves, tofu and scallion that packs a fiery wallop.

Hot pots such as kuk soo jun gol are cooked at the table. The server starts by setting broth to boil in a stainless-steel wok-shaped pot, tossing in a mass of noodles and testing a piece for doneness with her long chopsticks from time to time. Then she'll heave in thinly sliced rib eye, mushroom caps and dark emerald greens, cook them briefly and ladle the delicious savory casserole into tall porcelain bowls.

All around us, people are engaged in animated conversation, busily ferrying bites of short rib or rice or kimchi to their mouths. Any single dish served here might be better somewhere else, but Seoul Jung is quiet enough to talk, the service is accommodating--and where else downtown can you have such a pleasant, leisurely dinner in such a swell setting for less than $30 a person?



CUISINE: Korean. AMBIENCE: elegant dining rooms with granite tabletops inset with barbecues; several private rooms. BEST DISHES: beef tartare, mandu dumplings, barbecue (short ribs and marinated pork), pork and kimchi casserole. DRINK PICK: Korean beers. FACTS: Omni Los Angeles Hotel & Centre, 930 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (213) 688-7880. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, food only, $50 to $70. Valet parking.

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