Being that my in-laws had never been able to make it out to the New York or New Jersey area before, my parents wanted to take them out to dinner. This could have been problematic, from a diplomatic perspective. My parents profess to enjoy all cuisines, but they in fact will only eat food if it is Korean. When they go out for sushi, they go to a Korean sushi chef. When they have Chinese food, they go to a Korean-owner Chinese restaurant. And so forth. Although, they do like spaghetti.
The last time the four parents sat down for a meal, it was at a Korean BBQ in Chicago. This time, my mom suggested Korean BBQ. She wanted to go to Zen Zen, a place that my mom swears is in Ridgewood (or Ridgefield?), New Jersey. But, since this was my in-laws’ first time in New York, time was at a premium, and I didn’t want to have to trek all the way out to New Jersey. The second place she suggested was Kum Gang San. But, for the same reason I didn’t want to go to New Jersey, I didn’t want to go all the way to Flushing, even though that is one of my favorite Korean restaurants. Fortunately, Kum Gang San has a Manhattan location, which I had no idea. And it happened to be within a few blocks of our hotel.
When we sat down, we had to walk up several flights of stairs to get to the main restaurant. For some reason, this seems to be a theme in Korean restaurants. Poong Lim, the restaurant where my sister had her rehearsal dinner, is the same way. On the way up at Kum Gang San Manhattan, there was a woman in a hambok and she was playing a cover of Moon River on a traditional korean stringed, guitar-like instrument.
Once seated, we were greeted with the ubuquitous paper placemat. I don’t know why, but regardless of how fancy a Korean restaurant you go to, you always get a paper placemat. On this one, they try to explain all of Korean cuisine by pointing out the difference between Gook (soup) and Cheegae (stew), as if that was all there was to Korean cuisine.
We were quickly brought borree cha (barley tea), which is hot but served in what would be an ice water glass at a diner. I never liked borree cha growing up. Mostly, this is because of that summer I spent in Korea where, no matter how hot or humid it ever got, the most refreshing drink I could ever get was this steaming beverage.
But my wife likes it.
I had spent much of the day before this dinner going over the dishes that I thought would work with my in-laws. And the first thing my mom did was try to go off-script. That, I suppose, it what Korean moms do. But I was able to rein her in, and we got some in-law friendly foods ordered. And that’s when the ban chan (small dish side plates) came out.
At this dinner, we got kimchee (traditional spicy pickled cabbage dish), shredded seaweed, tofu, bean sprouts, and something that was either radishes or potatoes. When I tried the kimchee, it made my mouth pucker. And I explained that, as kimchee pickles, the flavor cures from a light cabbage-y flavor to a sour/spicy pickle. This kimchee was well-cured. I don’t think my in-laws ate any of it.
The first appetizer that we ordered was tempura shrimp and tempura veggies. It was crisp, over-battered, and oily, like all good Korean tempura. Also according to the Korean tempura standard, the shrimp was huge and arrow straight, which always confuses me.
We also ordered some sushi for my mother-in-law, who was looking forward to trying some in the city. The waitress came back with 4 pieces of flounder, 1 piece of tuna, and 1 piece of salmon. She seemed to enjoy it, even despite having considerable difficulty eating it with chopsticks. At that point, I went into a brief dissertation about how sushi was originally eaten as peasant food and with one’s fingers. Which, if you think about it, really is the most sensible way to eat sushi.
We also had pa (onion) juhn (pancake) as an appetizer. Although I am sure the pajuhn at Kum Gang Sahn was technically perfect, I found it unremarkable. Whenever I get pa juhn, or any kind of juhn for that matter, I am always disappointed. I like for my juhn to be really crispy. But I don’t think anyone makes it that way except for my mom when she overcooks it on accident.
For our main course, we had kalbi. At Kum Gang Sahn, you can get kalbi (marinated beef short ribs) or you can get speh shul kalbi (special marinated beef short ribs). As far as I can tell from the waiter’s explanation, the only difference between regular kalbi and special kalbi was that special kalbi had no bones or connective tissue to deal with. But, when I tasted the special kalbi, I am fairly sure that you are also getting a superior grade of beef.
The special kalbi gets cooked at the table. Along with the kalbi is some sliced mushrooms and some onions. A waitress came by and cooked it all for us, which may be something that this restaurant provides or may be a function of the fact that we had non-koreans at our table.
When you eat the kalbi, you can eat it just regular, as if you were at a bennihana. Or, you can eat it the korean way. You take a kaen nip, which is a large lettuce leaf (red leaf lettuce, in this case), that you wrap around the beef. you can also put in some shredded green onions and goh choo jang (korean red pepper paste). This evening, I ate it both ways. It was really good, so I wanted to eat more of it faster and without adornment. But, I also did eat some wrapped in lettuce because that’s how my not-Korean wife eats it and I can’t have her showing me up.
By the time we were done with the meal, we were all quite full. My mom then went off script and ordered dessert, which at a Korean restaurant is typically no more than a binary decision. Yes, I want dessert. or No, I don’t want dessert. Here, the dessert consisted of one of two kinds of sorbet. One was raspberry, which was good. the other was yellow and of an indiscernible flavor origin. Almond, maybe. Either way, it was gross.
In all, the dinner seemed to go remarkably well. Everyone seemed to have enjoyed their meals and had gotten enough to eat. Conversation between the two sets of parents flowed naturally and throughout the dinner. My mom was able to avoid her usual Korean mom custom of eating quietly and without saying much. And even our dads, who each have hearing problems, were able to converse amongst themselves and with everyone else at the table. I felt like it was the first time that our parents were really able to communicate. And I really cherish that. I thought it went so well that I think all of our future meals between these parents will have to be at that restaurant and at that booth.