By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
It's a brilliant concept: Let diners cook their own food. Not only does the restaurant save the cost of a grill man, but it also erases any annoying misconceptions about how long it takes food to cook--and how fast a kitchen should work.
The idea is not exactly new, though. Back when Mongols horded, they introduced the notion of do-it-yourself grilling across the backyards of much of Asia, including Korea. In fact, a lot of Korean food still carries the Mongolian stamp, particularly the popular barbecue that's cooked on a cast-iron disk known as a Genghis Khan griddle.
This venerable Korean tradition is given a thoroughly modern treatment at Silla (say "shi-la"), a four-month-old restaurant in Aurora owned by Yong K. Lee, who left Korea twenty years ago and took the name for his new venture from the ancient moniker of his native country's southeastern corner. Although Silla is Lee's first restaurant, it appears to be in the hands of an accomplished veteran. The dining rooms look as though they were carved out of polished wood and jade. Each contains several large tables, which are surrounded by soft-seated chairs on wheels and centered by grills complete with gas flames and fancy covers.
With this thing staring us in the face like a vacant black eye, it was impossible not to order at least a few barbecue entrees. At the strong suggestion of the hostess, we tried the kal bi ($12.95) and the king prawns ($14.95). The former featured short ribs marinated in Silla's "special sauce," a thin combination of sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic and ginger (four of the most common Korean ingredients). The raw ribs were cut apart tableside and strewn about the barbecue plate--and that was the last time a waitperson touched them. Already on the plate were the "prawns," whose description on the menu proved to be a massive misnomer. The term prawn can refer to a lobster-like shellfish, a freshwater shrimp, and even generically to any shrimp in the "jumbo" (15 to a pound) category. These shrimp, however, were more in the 31- to 35-per-pound range, which rendered them deserving of no appellation grander than "medium shrimp"--much less designation as kingly prawns.
But by now things were really cooking at our table, so we forgave the royal blunder. As we fought to appear masters of our own fate--or at least the grill--we turned over each piece at least twelve times. Until, that is, we became so involved in a heated discussion that we sort of let our dinners burn--a depressing proposition until we tasted the remaining shards and found that the crisp saltiness of the ribs had become even more intense during the extra time on the grill. Since the shrimps' marinade was lighter, though, we would have been better off fishing them out before they passed well-done.
Fortunately, the accompaniments to a Korean barbecue--the na mool--are the far more interesting part of the meal, and Silla offers a wonderful collection of the cold-cooked tidbits and marinated vegetables. Since a diner gets three sides with each entree, we were in line for a dozen different dishes. The first was kimchi, one of the few easily recognizable Korean foods and actually a culinary aberration for a country noted for its simple fare and uncomplicated flavors. The pickled cabbage leaves, fermented without vinegar, sat in a pool of liquid that contained the standard garlic, ginger and lots of crushed chiles--but not much salt. That light touch gave Silla's kimchi a fresher quality, which came as a pleasant surprise, since the dish is a restaurant's dream--it keeps forever--but often tastes like a leftover from Genghis's own table.
Several of the other na mool dishes were equally impressive versions of old standards: sesame-oil-soaked spinach studded with sesame seeds; bean sprouts sprinkled with peanuts. Radishes, which frequently crop up in Korean cuisine, appeared in two forms: One small white bowl housed part of a daikon cut into large chunks and heavily heated with chiles; another bowl held a pile of red radishes sweetening in sugar water. Most of the sides swam in some sort of liquid: Cubes of agar agar--molded gelatin extracted from seaweed--sat in soy sauce; caramelized slices of lotus root rested in their own juices. And a few were clearly designed to appeal to American tastes: baked beans, browned pieces of potato, a salad of limp iceberg lettuce and carrot shreds drowning in a spicy vinegar dressing.
One thing on the menu clearly not intended for the typical American diner is the skate ($12.95), which is why we decided to try it. But after we placed our order for the ray, the hostess kept coming back to our table and repeating, "Skate? The skate? You want the skate?" apparently forgetting her earlier offer: "If you want trouble with the menu, let me know."
And trouble was exactly what we got. Although the sashimi-style ray had been soaked in a wonderfully eye-popping paste that was lethally spicy, the dish arrived as a junkyard heap of onions and daikon with shredded skate-fin meat that hadn't been separated from the cartilage. The strips were so thin that we couldn't pick between the flesh and gristle, either, and we wound up taking the whole deal home--where it sat in the refrigerator for a week before we finally surrendered and tossed it.