I recently received an email from Seoul Garden owner Patty Koo to come in for a press meal. My wife had been here about three times in the past, so I knew it has to be a decent joint if she had been there on more than one occasion (she has great taste in food).
Seoul Garden has been a family-run operation since 1998. It started with Patty’s mom’s recipes, which were taught to the chefs and taken from there. It’s done very well through the years, and serves as a K-town staple: a place where you can find home-style cooking basics, nothing too fancy or obnoxiously trendy – just really good, solid Korean food in a welcoming and friendly atmosphere.
The restaurant is located on the second floor, up and off the noisy, crowded and sometimes smelly (in the summer time anyway) ground floor space.
While it may make for less visibility to passers-by, as a diner I actually like this feature of the restaurant, especially because the large windows on the second floor that overlook 32nd Street and the bustling K-town scene offer great natural light into the spacious and comfortable dining room. it makes you feel like you’re up in someone’s apartment too, which is cool.
The place was actually already packed at 6:30 while we were in the middle of our meal. Nice! I guess there’s no shortage of customers, even on a Monday night, right after a shitty day back at the office.
As is the case at all Korean joints, the servers bring out a barrage of delicious banchan. These are usually an assortment of pickled items, like kimchi, for those who don’t know the cuisine. Seoul Garden has an especially tasty set of these, which I’d like to give a little bit more detail on here:
First, and my favorite, was thick glass noodles with crushed pepper, dressed in a light sesame oil of sorts:
Then there was the sauteed peppers, onions and squid in a sweet and slightly spicy sauce. Really delicious.
This potato and Asian pear “salad” was dressed in a slightly sweet mayonnaise and was really refreshing and light:
The bean sprouts had a great texture; fresh snap to the stems and a good nutty crunch to the bean.
Seoul Garden serves up a really good kimchi. It’s spicy and crisp, crunchy and zesty. Almost bubbly or effervescent.
The only downer for me in this entire meal was this bitter green item: possibly dandelion or mustard greens?
It was a little too bitter to be eaten by itself, for me anyway, and a bit fibrous, but there were some sweet pickled radish slices that you could wrap around them to achieve a better balance.
The servers also brought out some lettuce for wrapping up the BBQ meat, and spicy scallion shreds for topping.
The sauce trays below contained: fermented soy bean (sweet and savory together – a really good dipping sauce for the meat), raw garlic (excellent when char grilled), and spicy soy sauce with scallions for dipping shit.
Okay, so now that all of the small plates are set up and ready to go, let me switch gears to some of the amazing starters that we tried.
First was this crispy, yet pillow-soft seafood and scallion pancake.
Inside were coarsely chopped scallions and bits of seafood, like squid tentacles. It was really good as a snack, or to dip into some of the sauces on the table. And it was BIG too: the size of a small pizza pie, and virtually grease-free. Most places serve up really greasy scallion pancakes, but this place was awesome.
This next dish isn’t served at too many Korean joints on 32nd Street. I saw it once before at the place directly next door, and my stomach turned at the thought of it, but that was way back in my less adventurous food days. What is it? Raw blue claw crab that has been marinating in a soy-based sauce, spices and other delicious sweet and potent flavor pastes. The bodies stay pretty soft, so you essentially just squeeze the thing between your fingers and suck all the meat out, like toothpaste from a tube. The consistency is similar to the delicious, soft and edible part of beef fat – it’s like jelly. Only here it is cold and flavored differently. All of this sounds really nasty, I know, but I fucking loved it. I can’t believe I was squeamish about this dish in the past. I’m all in now! That said, both I and Patty realize that this dish is not for everyone. I think it’s one of those “either you love it, or hate it,” kind of things.
The last pre-meat item is an incredible tofu and seafood soup. I know what you’re thinking: “Johnny, what the fuck, man? You just used the words ‘tofu’ and ‘awesome’ in the same fuckin’ sentence. Is everything okay? Did someone kidnap the real JP, or surgically remove his testes?”
Please allow me to explain this dish, which was far and away my favorite of the night. It comes to the table in a small, bubbling-hot cauldron that looks like a miniature witch’s stew.
Beneath the surface is an ensemble of seafood consisting of mussels, squid, head-on large shrimp, teeny tiny baby shrimp, mushrooms and silken tofu.
But wait… it gets better… There was a lone egg on the table when we were being served all the banchan. I was confused. But then it all became clear. The egg was for this soup. It gets cracked into the soup as it bubbles away, and you allow the hot soup to poach the egg to a perfect consistency. Watch:
Fucking… so… good… Spicy, deep and rich with seafood flavor, light yet hearty. Simply put, it is off the charts excellent. It’s called Soondofu, so you know what to order when you go in.
Okay so after that shit the beef was just not even that interesting. Don’t get me wrong – the meat was spectacular and really tasty, but I was blown away by that soup to the point where everything else just paled in comparison.
So they grilled for us at the table: marinated cross-cut, sliced beef ribs with enoki mushrooms, garlic and raw onion slices. That was the first up to bat:
They snip up the meat pieces with scissors for you when they’re ready to take down. Excellent and attentive service, if I may say.
The marinade was good and flavorful, sweet and savory, and the meat was really tender. It came off the bone bits very easily. As you can see below, the sugar element in the marinade gives off a great sticky char when exposed to the heat for long enough.
Next was marinated (same flavor as above) boneless beef short rib, sliced thin, with mushroom, red bell pepper slices and fresh garlic.
Look at how awesome that interior looks. A purpley medium rare!
Essentially this was the same meat as above, but with a slightly different texture to it since it was sliced differently and not on the bone. They both went really nicely with the lettuce wraps, as well as all of the various toppings and sauces I discussed above.
Standard operating procedure at these joints is a slice of orange as a post-meal cleanse. Clean that mouth out with some citrus, bitch!
When it comes to the meat, this place understands: simple and delicious is the key. Heat + Meat = A Tasty Treat. But I have to say, that soup was so complex and delicious, that I consider it an absolute MUST TRY when you dine at Seoul Garden. Put this place on your short list. You won’t be disappointed if you eat what I ate.
And don’t forget to grab a stick of two of gum on your way out. It beats those shitty little red and white breath mints!
34 W. 32nd St.
New York, NY 10001