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THE GUIDE : EARLY BIRD

An upscale take on Korean BBQ

August 11, 2008|S. Irene Virbila | Times Restaurant Critic

Culver City continues to bust out in new restaurants, so much so that on a weekend night it can be tough to find a spot in one of the city's (free) parking structures. And so valet stations are popping up. Now there's one on Culver Boulevard in front of two side-by-side new restaurants -- Rush Street (casual Chicago-inspired eats with two bars) and Gyenari (a Korean barbecue restaurant with potential crossover appeal).

On a recent Friday night, Rush Street, with its moderate prices and burgers, was thronged, Gyenari merely crowded, though there was a crush at the entrance as strollers checked out the menu posted in front.

Just inside the door is a bar and lounge with rustic wooden benches overlooking a water feature and a wall of backlighted wine bottles. Ceilings are so high you almost expect to see a trapeze artist swinging from the rafters. The look is elegant and minimalist enough that Gyenari would fit right in in New York's meatpacking district, which means it's something very new for Culver City.

Here's the deal: Each of the 32 grill tables is outfitted with a Korean gas barbecue, the better to grill your own short ribs, chicken and pork belly. But instead of the usual noisy hoods, the grills use a technology to vent the smoke almost silently.

The owners have gone for an upscale experience: Prices are much higher than in Koreatown. And they've updated the traditional barbecue menu with separate appetizers -- dumplings filled with shrimp or pork, glass noodles with prime rib, tempura -- and fancy composed salads with a Korean twist. And for those not interested in barbecue, there are main courses such as prime rib dip, blackened salmon or a chuck burger.

Servers are primed to interpret the Korean BBQ experience for novices, and the typical ingredients have been updated with free-range chicken, prime tongue and Wagyu beef (which ups the price considerably). You can upgrade your short ribs to prime, for a price too. The meats themselves are fine, but the panchan, or little dishes, that accompany them are toned down quite a bit for the presumed audience. Kimchi is wimpy. Garlic is already roasted. And the little dishes are mostly too refined for the gutsy eating experience that is the point of Korean barbecue. The biggest disappointment is the bibim bap, which doesn't arrive in a hot stone bowl, rice sizzling, but in an ordinary salad bowl. It's just rice with various vegetables and other ingredients to toss like a Cobb salad. It's also bland as can be without the raw egg and chile paste that are usually stirred into the piping hot mixture at table.

Gyenari has a very happy ending, though: a bowl of shaved ice and coconut topped with all sorts of chilled tropical fruit and mango ice cream -- perfect on a steamy summer night.

Gyenari, 9540 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 838-3131; www.gyenari.com. Appetizers and salads, $8 to $16; Korean barbecue items, $20 to $49; set barbecue meals for two, $70; for three to four, $120 to $150; other main courses, $12 to $24; extra barbecue accompaniments, $12 to $18. Lunch salads and soups, $7 to $14; piknik lunch plates, $11 to $13; noodles and rice, $11 to $12; sandwiches, $13 to $14; desserts, $8 to $12. Full bar. Valet parking. Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, until 11 p.m. Friday; for dinner Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 5 to 10 p.m. The lounge is open until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday. --

virbila@latimes.com

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