Cafe Society


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.

There were no leftovers from our two soups, though. Originally ordered as starters, they arrived with the rest of our entrees, which worked out fine, since both came cheegay-style--more like stews with thin bases than regular soups--and were still bubbling in their enormous clay pots. The soft-tofu cheegay ($7.95) was jam-packed with big hunks of bean cake and vegetables, as well as attractive fish skeletons picked clean of flesh until they looked like something out of a Garfield comic. It had a broth similar to that of the broiled-crab soup ($11.95), which, not surprisingly, had a more crabby taste. The crabmeat itself, however, was difficult to remove from the broken-up shells, and seemed like a waste of good food.

A far better use of seafood (a staple of Korean cooking, after all) was in the four fish pancakes ($12.95). Cod had been ground to the consistency of mashed potatoes, mixed with cuttlefish (a relative of squid) and oysters (which hadn't been mentioned on the menu's description of the dish but were certainly welcome), then smashed together with skinny asparagus spears and chopped scallions. Each ingredient had a say in the final product, and the overall effect, while heavy, was gratifyingly complex.

After all of that food, we simply couldn't order dessert--but it was put in front of us, anyway. At the beginning of the meal, we'd been handed tall tumblers of lukewarm tea steeped with ginseng, whose digestive-aiding properties would come in handy later. Now we were looking at complimentary mugs of what seemed to be rice and water. And sure enough, when we asked what it was, we were told "rice in sugar water."

All through the meal, Silla's staff had been extremely willing to share information about the restaurant, the menu, the cooking--and even if their explanations were not particularly revealing, they were delivered with exceptional care. In fact, the service at Silla is among the most stellar--and unobtrusive--I've ever encountered. Staffers never missed a beat, right down to turning on the suction fan in the table grill when one of our group fired up a cigarette and was met with disapproval from the rest of the gathering. Utensils, water and tea were generously replenished, and plates were whisked away without our noticing.

It seemed a fair exchange. After all, cleaning up after your meal is not nearly as much fun as cooking it.