Dining With Denise Neil

Review: GangNam Korean Bar & Grill specializes in barbecue grilled at the table

If you can go to GangNam Korean Grill & Bar and not get the ubiquitous song by Psy stuck in your head, I applaud you.

“Eh, sexy lady/ Op, op, op, op/ Oppa Gangnam Style”

I can’t do it, but I like the food the new restaurant serves enough that I’m willing to tolerate it.

The restaurant, which opened in December, was Soomi Nam’s attempt to reboot Jinji Korean Grill & Bar, the restaurant she opened in the space three months earlier but couldn’t get off the ground. She got a new manager, some new recipes and a new name and relaunched the business to much better reception.

GangNam, named not for the ear worm song but for the ritzy district in Seoul, South Korea, specializes in Korean barbecue. Customers sit at special tables fitted with small, circular gas grills and watch as their meat and veggies sizzle right in front of them. That’s not the only option, though. Customers also can order traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap, bulgogi and more at nongrill tables.

I’ve done both, and each was equally delicious. But the grill option, though not inexpensive, offers a fun change of pace for downtown diners.

Those who want to try it should bring a group. They can pay $39.95 for three courses, $59.95 for four, $79.95 for five or $99.95 for six. I took a group of four people and ordered the four-course meal. It was more than enough food.

We were first-timers, and our waitress really didn’t explain the process at all, but we followed her lead. She sprayed down, then lit the grill, which is fitted with a propane source underneath. There’s also a vent hood above each table.

Next arrived the usual array of pre-meal snacks every GangNam diner gets, including a bowl of kimchi and little Korean salads to share made with ingredients like marinated cucumbers, bean sprouts and julienne carrots and radishes. Each diner at the table also got a covered silver dish of steamed rice and three sauces – two red chili sauces and one sesame oil – served in stackable dishes. The waitress also brought a basket of big romaine lettuce leaves, which we assumed were to be used to wrap the meat.

She then brought a tray of strips of paper-thin raw brisket, which she placed on the grill along with a whole onion and a large button mushroom. They sizzled on the grill for a bit but cooked quickly, and she distributed the pieces evenly among us. We put them in the lettuce leaves with little bits of the appetizer salads and dabs of sauce. Though the brisket slices were a bit chewy, the concoctions we put together were full of complex flavors.

She repeated the drill with the pork belly strips, which again were a bit too thin and chewy and not remarkably flavorful.

The experience got real for me when the marinated bulgogi beef arrived. The tray of sliced rib-eye was wet with marinade, and when dumped on the grill, the mixture made a beautiful, aromatic sizzle. The waitress finally incorporated the onion and mushroom that had been sizzling on the side of the grill into the bulgogi, then spooned it onto our plates. The beef was salty and rich and moist. It didn’t need any sauce or lettuce wrap, but adding them also added layers of flavor and texture.

We didn’t think it could get any better than the bulgogi, and then it did. Our final course was marinated short ribs – six large strips of the tiny ribs that had been marinated in a sweet sauce. Our waitress put them on the grill and let them cook until they caramelized. Then, using scissors, she cut each of the rib pieces apart, returned them to the grill, then left us to it. This was the only course that was self-serve.

And self-serve we did. The ribs were so sweet and sticky and chewy, they were truly meat candy. We couldn’t stop eating, and we all wished we hadn’t wasted so much stomach space on the first two courses so we could have finished those tiny pieces of magical meatiness.

The Korean barbecue menu items also can be ordered individually for between $17.99 and $26.99 apiece, and the additional choices include boneless, nonmarinated short ribs; spicy pork; and spicy chicken.

On another visit, I sampled many of the other classic Korean dishes from GangNam’s menu. The bibimbap in a stone bowl, one of my favorite Korean dishes, mixes rice with vegetables, bulgogi and a fried egg. GangNam has a good version of this dish, which becomes more delicious when the rice get crunchy against the steaming hot bowl and the yolk from the egg coats the meat and vegetables. Warning: This dish is almost too hot to eat for quite a while.

The restaurant also offers several unusual and unusually good appetizers, including some of the best shrimp tempura I’ve had. The coating was light, crunchy and not too greasy. I also loved the fried dumplings, which had a gingery pork filling, and the ginger salad, which had a chunky orange dressing with a bright gingery zing.

We took a chance on an unusual appetizer – a kimchi pancake. I’m not a big fan of kimchi, a salad made with fermented cabbage, but this giant pancake didn’t have any sort of sour flavor. It was slightly sweet and dense and doughy in the middle, and it absorbed the soy-based sauce served on the side.

The calamari was a much less successful appetizer. The order we were served had swum in the fryer a bit too long and was overdone and excessively chewy. But it was one of the few misses we found.

At lunch, GangNam has several inexpensive specials, including a $4.99 teriyaki chicken bowl, a $5.99 bulgogi bowl or several bento box meals that feature teriyaki and other main courses along with rice, a salad and mixed tempura.

GangNam’s dining room is cavernous, industrial and a bit dark. But a stylishly decorated adjacent bar, with living-room-style chairs set up conversation style, looks like a perfect place to enjoy an after-work cocktail.

The service at GangNam was overall good, though we definitely could have used more explanation on grill etiquette.

“Op, op, op, op/ Oppa Gangnam Style”

GangNam Korean Grill & Bar

Where: 210 N. Washington; 316-201-6400

Type of food: Grill-at-the-table Korean barbecue and other Korean dishes

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-10 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Price range: Korean barbecue meals, which feed several, range from $17.99 to $99.95. Entrees are $10.99 to $19.99. Lunch specials are $4.99 to $12.99.

Alcohol: Full bar