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The Formal Flavors of North Korea

November 08, 1998|S. Irene Virbila

Los Angeles has a huge korean population and, not surprisingly, hundreds of Korean restaurants of every sort. When I'm eating out for fun, not work, I love going to Korean barbecue restaurants such as Soot Bull Jeep on 8th Street to eat kalbi (short ribs) and spicy marinated pork cooked over a smoky fire, along with an array of panchan (side dishes). Just as pleasant is grabbing a table with friends in the huge canvas tent behind Safety Zone in the mid-Wilshire district to nibble fiery kimchi, tender charred bulgogi (beef marinated in garlic and sesame) and grilled octopus. At lunch, I sometimes go to Beverly Soon Tofu in Koreatown for silky tofu. And now I've just discovered a 5-month-old more formal Korean restaurant with a cuisine that's entirely new to me.

Yongsusan is named after a mountain in Kaesong, the ancient capital of the Koryo dynasty, and specializes in the cooking of that part of North Korea. A branch of a restaurant chain that has four locations in Seoul, it's an elegant place decorated with antiques and handsome painted scrolls. The parking lot is stuffed with fancy cars, but when we walk in, we hear only the murmur of voices without spying a soul. I soon discover that all the guests are tucked away in the 10 private rooms with brocade-covered walls, fine pieces of furniture and attentive service. If you want company, there's a main dining room with banquettes in peach brocade and ornate Roman shades on the windows.

Though Yongsusan's clientele is mostly Koreans hungry for a taste of North Korea, non-Koreans shouldn't feel at all intimidated. Our waitress introduces herself and then helps us order, suggesting dishes and instructing us how to eat whatever we're unfamiliar with. The staff speaks English; the menu is also carefully translated. The best strategy is to order one of the jung sik, or set menus; there are a half-dozen, including a vegetarian option. What you get is a long parade of small, beautifully prepared dishes: a porridge followed by three or four cold appetizers, as many as five hot appetizers, kimchi, green salad, a barbecue dish--and with some menus, a hot pot dish--and dessert.

The city of Kaesong has always been known for its good cooking. For a taste of its refined court cuisine, order Yongsusan's most expensive menu ($39.95 per person). The food has a delicacy and subtlety I haven't encountered in Korean food before. Even the kimchi is different. Bo sam kimchi is Kaesong-style wrapped kimchi layered with sliced carrots, bamboo shoots, other vegetables and pine nuts. Cut into quarters to reveal the stuffing, it goes from a dark somber green to pale at its heart and has a gentle fermented taste.

Each menu begins with a bowl of ho bak jook, a marigold-colored pumpkin porridge that's slightly sweet and gluey in texture and the one dish I had trouble appreciating. But what a feast unfolds as dishes with varied flavors and textures appear one after another. What stands out is chung po mook, translucent mung bean noodles with black-green flakes of seaweed, ribbons of crunchy pickled cucumber, threads of sweet marinated beef and julienned mushrooms. Just as delicious is gye ja chai, another cold appetizer of squiggly gold strands of dried jellyfish with crisp pickled cucumber cut to look like spaghetti, julienned Asian pears, shrimp and a quarter of preserved egg in a dressing with a blast of hot mustard.

Buckwheat wontons are beautiful hand-pleated torpedoes filled with a light, savory beef and kimchi stuffing. A plate of cold cuts is outstanding: pale slices of tender pork belly and mahogany chunks of subtly spiced blood sausage. Our waitress shows us how to pick up a wrinkly leaf of kimchi, marinated with red chile, and drape it over the sliced square of pork belly. Ah.

Two dishes are absolutely gorgeous. If yuk hwe, beef tartare, is included in your menu, the waitress will appear with a platter of hand-chopped raw beef decorated with garlic cloves and neatly stacked piles of julienned cucumber and Asian pear; everything is mixed together right in front of you. The meat has been seasoned with a little sesame oil, garlic and a touch of soy sauce. Served icy cold, it's really delicious, and much lighter than Western-style steak tartare. The other beautiful dish is ku jul pan, the nine-ingredient pancake. A special platter holds a stack of thin crepes, surrounded by little piles of what looks like colored embroidery floss. Using her silver chopsticks, the waitress plucks a few threads from each pile and deftly rolls them up in a crepe, burrito style. The colors are made up of thin strands of egg white, egg yolk, mushrooms, shredded beef, carrots and various other vegetables.

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