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Korean Chic

April 01, 2001|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Perched on a futuristic white vinyl bar stool at the latest entry on La Cienega's Restaurant Row, I watch the bartender fill a cocktail shaker with crushed ice and a clear liquor, pour in sugar--a lot of sugar--squeeze in lime and shake. The waitress stamps her feet impatiently. I was waiting for my friends, so I'd ordered the house specialty known as Soju Caipirinha. Made with soju, a fiery Korean sweet potato vodka, it's a bewitching blend of Korean and Brazilian influences, just like the food at this stylish new restaurant.

Korean-Brazilian? Sounds like some wacky fusion cuisine dreamed up in a corporate boardroom. In truth, it's a natural for the brother-sister team of Jun and Soyon Kim, who own Temple. They're Korean, but they grew up in Brazil and worked as fashion designers in New York (their line was called Isani) before opening their first restaurant together. Los Angeles, with its huge Korean community, is a city just waiting for a hip Korean restaurant.

To diners whose experience has been confined to wonderfully funky--and delicious--Korean barbecue places, or to simple tofu or noodle joints, Temple will come as a surprise, not only for its thoroughly modern food, but also for its sleek good looks. Remember the old Beverly Hills Coffee Shop just north of Wilshire Boulevard? The Kims and their architect, Richard Corsini, updated the Googie-inspired look with a simple stainless steel fountain and pool out front, walls faced in shimmering tiles and a quietly sophisticated palette of dark chocolate and milky blue. A flotilla of white moth orchids decorates the foyer, and in the dining room, Soyon Kim has filled a wide shelf with a serene landscape of pale antique Korean and contemporary Italian vases reminiscent of a Morandi still life. Dark wood tables and elegant wood benches line the floor-to-ceiling windows along one side of the long, narrow dining room. An outdoor patio with tables runs along the entire length like a mirror image of the dining room.

Chef Richard Aramino has created a crossover Korean cuisine by weaving the tastes and traditional forms of Korean cuisine with California greens, eye-pleasing presentation and a touch of Brazil. It's designed to appeal to the young fashionista crowd that frequents Temple. The list of appetizers is as long as the entrees, so it's perfect for grazing, too.

To start, order rock shrimp dumplings for the table. These tender hand-pleated dumplings have a delicate, finely minced stuffing of rock shrimp and greens, and come with a swatch of seaweed salad perfumed with sesame oil. The waiter will automatically bring out a half dozen side dishes to munch on while the kitchen is preparing your appetizers. These panchan, or side dishes, include bean sprouts splashed with red chile and a plate of lightly pickled grated daikon. It is as refreshing and crunchy as a jicama salad. There's also a traditional cabbage kimchi made of soft, wrinkly napa cabbage pickled in red chile paste, and another even more pungent version made with cubes of daikon.

Appetizers are the strength of the menu. Every one I tried was excellent. Seared beef sirloin carpaccio gets a Korean spin with a garnish of peppery daikon sprouts, sesame leaf and thinly sliced red onion. Brazil's crab cakes here are laced with kimchi for an intriguing flavor. One of my favorite appetizers is the sumptuous seafood pancake studded with shrimp, squid and scallops. It's soft and floury, cut into rectangles, the better to dangle in a soy dipping sauce. Sashimi tartare is a beguiling mix of diced hamachi and ahi tuna with crunchy cucumbers embellished with ginger aioli and a tropical citrus creme fraiche. Temple's variation on oysters Rockefeller is Pacific oysters baked in their shells with sauteed spinach leaves and a spicy ginger mayonnaise. I particularly like the julienned jicama and Fuji apple "slaw" that comes with it. And during February's rains, a spicy Korean peasant soup of beef and cabbage with daikon and bean sprouts stopped a potential cold in its tracks.

Dol sot bi bim bap is dinner in a sizzling stone pot: steamed rice topped with beef sirloin, spinach and zucchini and a pungent sesame-miso-chile paste. Koreans love beef, especially short ribs, so of course, Temple has braised short ribs on the menu. It seems to be this year's trendiest dish, in fact. Here they're slowly cooked in soy sauce with Korean red dates, daikon and chestnuts. Even better are the oxtails braised in a subtle garlic vinegar sauce. Bulgogi steak, a marinated New York steak strewn with pine nuts, can be wonderful, too, but the last time I tried it, the steak seemed overly tender, almost mushy.

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