Korean Restaurant Satisfies 'Jung' and Old

Why is it that on Valentine's Day, the coupled among us consider only French and Italian places? This narrow thinking presumes only certain kinds of restaurants can be romantic. Not so. Besides, many more traditional locales are far less charming on Feb. 14 when the staff is stressed, the kitchen is overwhelmed and the menus are often inflated prix fixe deals. Fortunately there are compelling alternatives like Seoul Jung.

Seoul Jung is the sleek, chic, upscale Korean restaurant in the Wilshire Grand Hotel. The dining room is comfortable and pretty. Anchoring the room is a huge marble sphere turning hypnotically atop a fountain. Blond wood, wall panels featuring bathing females, generous booths, granite tabletops and an air of sophistication are the hallmarks of the decor.

For those who have never had Korean food, it is not unlike Japanese. Freshness is prized above all else and presentation is key. There are rice and noodle dishes, lots of seafood, and barbecue. In general though, the flavors in Korean cuisine are heightened and brightened.

One of the most beautiful and satisfying Seoul Jung dishes is the appetizer pa jeon ($13.75). This is a thick, savory pancake the diameter of a small pizza. It is golden and aromatic, laced with colorful julienned peppers and lots of fresh calamari and shrimp that play peekaboo through the mild batter. The texture is surprisingly light and the seafood markedly tender.

Chap chae ($11.75), skinny translucent noodles stir fried with beef and colorful vegetables, is another crowd favorite. And I am absolutely taken with the pretty spinach crêpes called ke sal mal yi ($14.75). These are a brilliant green, accented with an artistic drizzle of creamy white sauce. Within is warm crabmeat.

Bi Bim Bip Bam Boom

It is worth noting that a significant number of Seoul Jung's regulars are Korean, a strong endorsement. (The hotel is in fact owned by Korean Air.) The restaurant offers skinny silver chopsticks, though you might want to request a set of the more prosaic disposable wood chopsticks, which are easier to maneuver.

A top-notch Korean dish is bi bim bap, a generous bowl of rice topped with fresh, finely cut vegetables, sauteed beef, chili paste and a glistening egg yolk, which, when broken, bathes every rice grain. It is food for the soul. Seoul Jung's version ($13.25), served in a heavy iron pot, is standout. They also do a variation with beef tartar called yook hwoe bi bim bap.

Equally wonderful are the many barbecue options: marinated rib-eye, cuttlefish, Tiger prawns, sea scallops. The list goes on. The cooking method couldn't be simpler. Built into each table is a high-tech grill that draws smoke downward. Veterans do the cooking themselves. First timers and those needing a little guidance can count on one of the staffers to help.

Accompanying the barbecue are several dipping sauces, a pile of red leaf lettuce leaves and a salty fermented bean paste akin to miso. Once your meat is cooked, grab a lettuce leaf, dab it sparingly with the bean paste, and then add the meat. The play of the hot, naturally sweet meat against the cool lettuce and salty bean paste is an epiphany. You can also add cloves of fresh garlic or slivers of jalapeno, both of which mellow after a spell on the grill.

I especially like the rib eye and the cuttlefish, akin to squid. And shiitake mushrooms—slippery, sexy and meltingly tender—have never been better. The only barbecue item that causes pause is the beef brisket rolled with sesame leaves, scallion and enoki. The beef, ribboned with fat, is chewy. And while the sesame leaves have an intriguing bitterness, they're dry and papery.

The barbecue items come with soup and rice and, as with all the entrees, a terrific array of small dishes, like Korean tapas. There is the well known spicy pungent cabbage called kim chee, crisp cucumber chunks marinated in a piquant chili paste, cool julienned radish in a refreshing vinegar bath and a salad of wilted marinated bean sprouts.

Despite the profusion of dishes that will inevitably cover your table by the end of a meal here, making it look like that famous turn-on scene in the movie Tom Jones, you can expect to be pleasantly satisfied instead of uncomfortably bloated. That's something to consider when you're in the mood for love.

Seoul Jung serves dinner nightly and lunch weekdays only. It is located on the Seventh Street side of the Wilshire Grand Hotel, 930 Wilshire Blvd. Call (213) 688-7880.

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