Soo's Kimchee House Wins Your Heart and Your Stomach
This location is closed
Sometimes there comes a restaurant that you realize you've been looking for all along. There are places we all agree Baltimore is sorely, desperately wanting: that cheap corner noodle shop; the homegrown, full-on seafood showcase restaurant (could be one's on the way--keep an eye out for Blue Sea). But I don't think anyone's been openly bewailing the absence of a kimchee house.
No one could have expected Soo's Kimchee House to come along, except, obviously, Soo Kim, the talented and bighearted Maryland Institute College of Art alum who has made this inspiring, nourishing, wonderful little restaurant. It of course specializes in kimchee, that pungent pickled paragon of acquired taste, but also more, with a moderately scaled menu of soups, noodle-based entrées, sushi, bentos, and essential Korean specialties like bibimbap and bulgogi.
Most visitors will be smitten, though, before taking a bite of anything, and we would have fallen for Soo's if it really had turned out to offer nothing but kimchee. Soo's single dining room is up a short flight of stairs from the crimson-awninged entrance on West Preston Street, right next door to the OK Natural health food store. (The gracious Sylvan Beach is just down this now indispensable city block.) Sweet, sweet dining room: turquoise-trimmed, saffron-colored walls; hand-knotted rugs on polished wood floors; adult, loved-looking potted plants. Posters and fliers are artfully arranged under the glass tops of the tables.
Soon after being seated, a server brings a cup of hot grain-based tea, usually either barley or roasted corn. The service is fine, though I'd be anxious about the wait for food if I walked in to find a full dining room. And in a quirky but endearing decision, Soo's is open only for lunch, only on weekdays. At least for now.
The would-you-mind-sharing-this photocopied menu offers a lot of possibilities for moderately adventurous diners, and vegans and vegetarians will find themselves to have been well considered. In fact, the lower down the food chain you go at Soo's the better results I think you'll find. Our favorite dishes were beautiful, meatless takes on dumplings and maki; the only concoction that failed to provide complete delight was the beef-based bulgogi.
Soo's green-wrapped dumplings, kimchee mandoo ($5), are gorgeous, especially when fried. Stuffed with kimchee, tofu, slivers of vivid carrot, and cellophane noodles, they make a surprisingly light and sense-arousing appetizer. A spicy sauce and a sweet sauce are provided for dipping; they're barely needed. From the brief sushi menu, Soo's garden roll, seaweed-wrapped slices filled with carrot, cucumber, watercress, and takwon (pickled daikon radish), pleased us with its play of contrasting colors and flavors. It also pleased us because it came free (it's usually $5). This happens here.
Soup makes a meal at Soo's. The kimchee tofu soup with shrimp ($10) and the chicken and shrimp udon ($8) are big bowls full of steaming broth, just-sliced onions and squash, shiitake mushrooms, cellophane noodles, and jumbo shrimp in the shell. (The kimchee soup is served with a radish salad and Soo's perfect nutty and moist brown rice.) An uplifting yookgae chang ($8) places slivers of beef in a spicy broth filled with the same vegetables; it took what seemed like a half-hour to polish it off.
Perhaps the dish that best represents Soo's appealing fusion of Korean ingredients with Moosewood-era health food devotion is the beautifully balanced bibimbap ($8), an arrangement of rice, soybean sprouts, fresh vegetables, and radish salad in an earthenware bowl. Doing without the protein of the lovely fried egg that's placed atop the whole thing will save you a dollar. However, the bulgogi ($10) may have been too healthful for our tastes. Among the more widely encountered Korean staples, the spiced and marinated slivered beef served here made us realize we liked bulgogi because it's greasy and a little nasty. Call it the cheese-steak effect: The best are the worst.
A handful of bentos (arrangements in boxes) are available, filled with brown rice, kimchee salad, and your choice of tofu, chicken, roasted eel, ginger shrimp, or salmon. The roasted eel ($10) comes in impressively sized slices and tastes mellow and mild. The plain broiled salmon ($13) betrays little of what I think of as Asian influence; the hard-to-place yellowish sauce on top tasted like vintage Julia Child. And as for the kimchee (a showcase filled with gigantic jars of the stuff greets incoming customers), it's crunchy, stinky, and really very nice, and Kim expertly makes many versions. One we tried included stalks of rapini (broccoli rabe), itself already strong and bitter; rendering it pickled is the type of passionate stroke that helps Soo's Kimchee House wins your heart and stomach.
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