Seoul Searching

T he “open” sign was lit. The hours taped to an outer door said noon to 9. And yet, at 2 p.m., the inner door was locked. I jiggled the handle, then noticed a white doorbell and a red instruction: “call.”

A moment after pressing the button, a latch sounded, and the door swung open. The hand that’d swung it ushered me loosely to one side of the airy restaurant, away from an employee who was having their lunch. I took a seat with blue-green upholstery glazed in something that made it easy to clean, like the chairs in the waiting room of a pediatric dentist. The music drifting from somewhere overhead was more the speed of an adult dentist’s office: calming, classical and mostly instrumental. The first song I registered was “Ave Maria,” the next an orchestral version of Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie No. 1,” a tune I recognized from My Dinner with Andre.

As in that movie, I can imagine people having strangely profound catch-ups with long-lost friends at Seoul Restaurant & Lounge. There would, at least, be plenty to talk about. Opened in 1999, the curious Korean/Japanese restaurant at 343 Crown Street, which has somehow endured for the dozen years I’ve been passing by it while never seeing more than a few tables occupied, is a business where the hopes the proprietors have had for it seem visible in the objects with which they’ve filled it.

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At the back of the restaurant, what must have once been envisioned as a busy sushi counter is now a gallery, a glass case of the kind that normally entices diners to buy sashimi displaying ceramics and figurines instead. The restaurant’s hard liquor collection, perhaps once the seed of an ambitious cocktail program, looms over a bar along another wall, even as the menu goes no harder than sake. Across the room, a corner stage holds enough gear to record an album, much less host a karaoke night, though I wonder when it last held one of those. In another corner, a service station that looks made for scooping and topping ice cream sits unused, a large unhung clock resting next to it. During my visit, the wall of tables between the clock corner and the karaoke corner were “reserved”—for all I know, a permanent distinction—despite every table in the place save mine being empty.

I was contemplating what all of these things meant when my Green Tea ($3) arrived, piping hot in a delicate white cup. Unlike its environment, the tea was nothing special, drawing only a faint vegetal astringency from a pouch of pulverized leaves. It had only slightly less flavor than the next arrival, the Edamame ($6), which was, unfortunately, totally unseasoned. I tried to appreciate the gentle, verdant nuttiness of the soybeans, but it’s hard to excuse such a minimal treatment when paying to dine out. I found myself craving the salty, garlicky, irresistible version to be found a few blocks away at Kuro Shiro.

Still, I held out hope for the Stone Pot Bibim Bap ($22), which I’d ordered with tofu (not beef, the other option) and without egg. The miso soup that came with it was quite flavorful—earthy and savory with just the right salt level, probably the best I’ve had in New Haven. A small dish of cabbage kimchi was beautifully spicy and sour, and a side of cold steamed broccoli was mighty tasty thanks to a good schmear of homemade gochujang, a.k.a. “Korean hot sauce,” to quote my main server.

The Bibim Bap itself was served in a black stone bowl hot enough to sizzle what touched it, specifically the layer of rice on the bottom, which crisped up to a chewy crunch. The dish came with an instruction to mix together the neatly divided tofu, seaweed, onion, carrot, bean sprout, cucumber and rice. But even after mixing, the dish was too hot to comfortably eat for several minutes.

When I got down to eating, there wasn’t a lot of flavor to be found. Even the onion and the seaweed were very mild, adding only the faintest blushes of sweetness and fishy brine. An oily richness coated the rice and seeped into the cucumber, and the light vegetal qualities of the carrot and cucumber added a little something. But the dish needed more. You might object by saying, “Well, Dan, you only have yourself to blame. You left out the egg!” But in my opinion, a restaurant dish shouldn’t rely on one out of nine components to make it delicious. Every element, or as close to that as practicable, should be tasty on its own.

Not all was lost, however. Halfway to the bottom, I decided to throw the kimchi, the broccoli and the gochujang into the pot. That certainly made the dish more interesting—salty, spicy, funky—though it wasn’t exactly cohesive. If I could do it again, I’d only mix in the broccoli and the hot sauce, which really brought it all together, and leave the kimchi to be enjoyed on its own. Maybe that’s what I was supposed to do in the first place, and I just didn’t know it.

Along the way, the service at Seoul was earnest and kind, and the ambience was both relaxing and memorable. The disappointments and flashes of brilliance in the food I tried may or may not speak to the rest of the menu.

In any case, the real reason I’d dined here was to sate my curiosity, and to that end, I left quite satisfied.

Seoul Restaurant & Lounge
343 Crown St, New Haven (map)
Wed-Sun noon-9pm
(203) 497-9634

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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