Towson Fixture Does Korean Classics Right
This location is closed
Of all Eastern cuisines, wonderful salty-spicy-sour-sweet Korean edges out Thai as my favorite; I've made a point of visiting Korean restaurants all over town. So how could I have overlooked the oddly named Purim Oak, which has been sitting right across York Road from the central branch of the Baltimore County Public Library since Dutch Ruppersburger was in short pants?
The most likely answer is that the restaurant operates as a Korean/Japanese/Chinese/sushi buffet during the day as well as on weekend nights. Asian all-you-can-eat has given me the Big Fear ever since I was served cheese (!) sushi at the king daddy of Mobtown's Korean buffets, New No Da Ji. However, once I determined that Purim Oak also has an extensive à la carte menu of Korean classics--including several pages written only in Korean--I was eager to visit.
That eagerness was tempered somewhat upon actually entering the joint. It's a bad, bad feeling to walk into a large restaurant during prime dining hours and find you'll be the only customers. Though the place seemed empty at first, one other sake-slugging couple turned out to be tucked into a back corner. They left soon after, and then it was just us and the waitstaff. Twice during our meal, other people entered, looked around, and left-- not a comforting experience.
Fortunately, initial impressions proved inaccurate and we enjoyed a good-quality meal of classic Korean dishes. One of our party had never before eaten Seoul food, and I wanted to introduce him to mainstays like pa jun and kimchi jigue; Purim Oak came through with solid and inexpensive versions of these and more.
We started out with hae mal pa jun ($4.95), a delightfully salty, greasy pancake filled with shrimp, chopped squid, and scallions. The appetizer portion was the size of a dinner plate, smaller than the usual pizza-sized entrée version ($16.95), but it amply fed three people. The plate of five mandoo gui (fried dumplings, $4.95) was not so successful; the chopped meat and vegetable filling was stringy and a bit bitter, but we ate them all anyway, with help from a sesame-soy-ginger dipping sauce used with both appetizers.
At this point we'd been seated for some time, and there was no sign of panchan, the little bowls of varied goodies that are the hallmark of Korean dining and possibly my favorite aspect of the entire cuisine. I was starting to get a little worried--what if this place doesn't come through with the kimchi?!--when our server at last walked up with a big tray and began offloading small dishes of spicy and/or pickled treats. The best were terrific chili-fried tofu squares with sesame seeds, watercress in rice wine vinegar, and firm, salty-sweet strips of fish cake. The usual suspects--shredded daikon, seaweed, marinated cucumbers, mung bean sprouts, and the ubiquitous kimchi--were done well too.
Since the newbie claimed to be able to handle the heat, I hooked him up with the fiery pork and cabbage stew, kimchi jigue ($8.95). He dug into the large crock with gusto, pausing after the third spoonful to declare, "This is going to hurt me bad," before polishing off most of the rest. He stopped every now and then to wipe his brow, swig from his giant bottle of Kirin Ichiban beer ($5.50) and inquire about the identity of the various treasures (sliced rice cake and tofu) he was dredging from the bright orange broth.
In the spirit of classic Korean, I went with dol shot bi bim bab ($10.95), a mix of rice, beef, and vegetables served in a superheated stone crock so that everything arrives at the table at a serious sizzle. A runny-yolked fried egg rested on top of the heap, and I used chopsticks to mix all the ingredients together, along with a large dollop of chili paste. It was solid but uninspired: Although the meat had almost no flavor, the dish won points for the pot being heated enough to cook the outer layer of rice to a golden crust.
Mae woon kal bi tang (prime short ribs in broth with noodles, $11.95) was the best thing we tried. The broth was beefy and mellow, overlaid with the perfect amount of hot chili flavor; the cellophane noodles and tender hunks of on-the-bone beef soaked up some of the fire so that a pleasant burn suffused, but did not overwhelm, the milder flavors.
We ate, and drank, a lot. The bill was 50 bucks. All in all, we were pleased.
Don't bogart that panchan: Dishthis@hotmail.com.