Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Gyenari: Hello Korean BBQ, it's nice to meet your acquintance

As much as I love my hometown, Newport Beach, I’m the first to admit that it has a few shortcomings. Not many -- who doesn’t love living five minutes from the beach in one of the most beautiful places in the country? – but it is far from perfect, particularly in terms of the dining scene.

While Orange County has opened up some great new restaurants in recent years, when I was growing up, my family and I frequented the chain circuit – Chili’s and Coco’s when I was a tike, and PF Chang’s and Cheesecake Factory when I grew in my big girl teeth. As such, I didn’t get many opportunities to stretch my palate – even when we did go out for special occasion dinners at the Five Crowns or Villa Nova in Corona del Mar.

My rather limited gastro-education as a youngster is part of the reason I have not been exposed to ethnic and/or exotic cuisine (the other part involves my… err… picky tendencies). Despite my proclamations that I am passionate about food (ie. my name belongs under the hateful header “foodie”), I have an embarrassingly long roster of things I’ve never eaten before – Korean BBQ being one of them.

It’s not that I’ve been opposed to noshing on KBBQ. I like meat, I like barbecue and I clearly like to cook, but somehow, the opportunity never came up. Or at least it didn’t until I received an invitation to attend a complimentary blogger dinner at Gyenari, an upscale Korean BBQ restaurant in Culver City last Wednesday night.
While my fellow bloggers, who frequent Koreatown to get their BBQ on, were a little leery of chowing down at a place in Culver City, I couldn’t have been more excited. I knew Gyenari would be the perfect spot for me to acquaint myself with this type of cuisine. It would be a way to sort of ease myself in without having to completely dive in at a K-town location that tantalizes its more seasoned diners with menu items like diaphragm, small intestine or pork neck. As I told the gastro-adventurous Tony of Sino Soul in a recent e-mail, “D takes a B does NOT eat diaphragm, intestine or neck.”**

At least not yet. After my successful meal at Gyenari, I may be willing to go for some of that neck business… (but only if it tastes like chicken)

Over the course of our three hour dinner at Gyenari hosted by the charming owner William Shin and general manager Jimmy Jang, we were accosted with a seemingly never-ending stream of plates and shared platters. Korean BBQ is not for those who like to keep their food close to their vest – this is family-style dining at its finest. Lesson #1 of the night: Leave the food wenches at home. Everybody be grubbin’ on those pork belly skewers.

There were definite hits and (a few) misses for me – as is to be expected when trying something new. Even though my drink of choice is always always always wine, I was unduly impressed with the restaurant’s signature cocktail – the soju caipirinha made with fresh lime, raspberries, muddled lychee, soju, and a splash of soda. The well-balanced drink (with a flavor profile that resembled the smoothies my dad used to make me as a kid) is something I’d actually order again – even if weren’t free for the taking. I can picture myself meeting a Westsider for cocktails and gossip on Gyenari’s patio in the future – and maybe noshing on a few beef skewers as well if we aren’t trying to go Hollywood liquid diet.

As for the food (kind of the point of a blogger dinner), I loved the Duk Boki, pan fried rice cylinders with onions and Korean Chile Paste that are texturally similar to mochi (ie. chewy and carbolicious), and also enjoyed the shrimp, vegetable and mung bean jeons with the shoyu scallion dipping sauce. The tiny fried cakes were perfectly executed -- not overly breaded and bursting with plump shrimp and veggies, and I appreciated that they weren’t saturated with oil.

The Pear and Shiso Salad with flashed rib eye and shabu sesame dressing was another of my favorite dishes of the evening. The texture of the beef was off-putting to me from afar (ie. from behind my camera lens), but the succulent strips of beef were ultimately a winner for me, and I loved the fresh greens and pear in the salad that helped temper the richness of the beef.

My favorite items of the night, however, were the Japchae (glass noodles with stir fried with thinly sliced veggies and beef) and the Galbee (tender slices of marinated beef short ribs) that we were meant to cook on the grill with our other proteins – bulgogi (typically a prime cut of beef), aged pork belly and flower chicken. While the diners to our right and left grilled their own meat, our section of the table didn’t have grilling capabilities and received our meat already cooked. I was fine with this development – I stove it up so much at home that the last thing I want to do when I go out is cook more. Even if I may have had a less “authentically” Korean BBQ experience because of it.

Dishes that didn’t quite ease my transition from Korean BBQ newbie to a Korean BBQ lover included the pumpkin porridge with toasted pine nuts and soju sautéed dates, and the kimchee chagae and rice (a traditional Korean kimchee stew). Even with the sweet dates, the overall composition of the porridge was a bit unbalanced by the savory elements, and while my companions told me it is considered a traditional dish, it did not seem to complement the rest of the menu.

We capped off our evening with Spicy Chocolate Crème Brulee with bacon shortbread and almond cream, and Green Tea Beignets with chocolate mint drizzle. Despite my adoration for anything that contains the word “chocolate” and “cream,” ultimately, I was too full to dig very far into my brulee. I did make sure to clean the almond cream off the top, however, – one is never too maxed out for a little poof of delicately flavored whipped cream.

Despite some minor hiccups, my overall experience at Gyenari was unequivocally positive. It was the perfect environment for an introduction to the cuisine, especially since I was surrounded by diners who were eager to explain, for example, why we were receiving bowls of potato salad, pickled cucumbers, kimchee, bean sprouts, and broccoli with our meat course (they are free accompaniments – “banchan” – that can be replenished at any time).

By the end of the night, Gyenari whetted my appetite for more Korean BBQ. Maybe not for diaphragm**, but in time, I may (at my more adventurous friends’ urgings) have my way with some pork neck.

9540 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
Phone: (310) 838-3131
**Addendum: Apparently, D takes a B does "do" diaphragm. According to trusted foodie sources, diaphragm is also referred to as skirt steak and hangar steak -- two cuts of beef that I have enjoyed on many occasions.


SinoSoul said...

Pig neck, pork shoulder, pork belly, pig intesting, cow heart, cow diaphragm are next. In that order?

Again, you looked lovely. Women should wear more red.

Gastronomer said...

It was a grand night, my friend. I recently had diaphragm and it wasn't all that crazy. Not even a little crazy. Let's hit up a K-Town joint in the near future? I hope to have my post up by tomorrow.

weezermonkey said...

Eating real Korean BBQ doesn't mean you have to nosh on intestines! The beauty lies in the much lower prices. :)

Jenn said...

I love Korean food. I'm going to have to hit this place up too. I don't mind the drive from the valley just to get good Korean BBQ.

Anna A. said...

High five for popping your KBBQ cherry - I'll be honest with you, I just had Korean food this year too.

Heather said...

wow! lucky, lucky you!! that looks tasty :)

Diana said...

Tony - Thank you. You are forgiven for laughing at my donut distress.

Cathy - Yep, I'm down for Ktown!

Sharon - Haha, I like the sound of that! (So does my bank account!)

Jenn - It's a cool place! Be sure to get the soju cocktail - yum!

Anna - So glad I'm not the only one!

Heather - I know - I felt incredibly fortunate to be included in the dinner. Truly an incredible night.

Esi said...

Next up...cheeseburger time! :)

Glad you had a good first experience with Korean BBQ

Ashley said...

Makin my mouth water!!!

yutjangsah said...

I adore jap chae and duk bok kee. I may have to call you a korean soul sister.