Second Helpings

Han Kang

As evidenced by the strange but incredibly successful tapas menu being done izakaya-style at Izakaya Den (see review), the Japanese know a thing or two about small plates. But other Asian cuisines have taken to the notion of little tastes of several dishes, too. The Chinese have dim sum; the Vietnamese can trace their expansive spread of tiny tastes back to the imperial days, when small plates were the favored cuisine in Hue. And the Koreans? Well, they may be the unsung masters of the small plate.

Thinking about small plates got me thinking about Han Kang, so I went there for lunch recently, hungering for that spread of snackies, garnishes and salads without which no Korean meal would ever be complete. True, I sampled my share of big plates (ginseng chicken, with a whole, twice-bowled bird floating in a wonderful ginseng broth; a barbecue plate of thick-cut bacon dredged through a powerful, salty and delicious garlic oil; and my favorite, a fiery crab soup), but each of those came with such jewel-box wonders as a two-bite portion of cold shredded beef with sesame oil; boiled greens that tasted of leaf spinach after a semester overseas; Han Kang's mild and surprisingly un-stinky kimchi (fermented cabbage in chili paste) — the most pleasing kimchi in the city, to my uneducated tourist's palate — and blanched green broccoli heads surrounding a puddle of glittering red sweet-and-sour sauce that tasted exactly like the stuff in the squat glass bottle that my mom used to buy in the Oriental Foods aisle of the grocery store back home. Which only made like it all the more.

As always, Han Kang's service was laughingly friendly, even as my party loaded order upon order until finding room on the tables for the next dish became an exercise in culinary geometry. While we slurped our soup, nibbled our kimchi and barbecued more bacon, we watched Korean soap operas on the big TV at the front of the room. And I left knowing that although Izakaya's small plates may now be the standard against which I judge all fusion food, Han Kang's remain the standard against which I will continue to judge the traditional.