Posted On: 05/01/2015
In December, owner David Choi relocated his wildly successful Seoul Taco restaurant – the brick-and-mortar version of his equally successful food truck – from a small spot on a side street in The Loop to the massive space on the main drag that once housed Ginger Bistro. There, he also opened his Korean barbecue concept, Seoul Q, for a two-in-one Korean dining experience the likes of which St. Louis has never seen before. While a floor-to-ceiling latticed partition is not quite the 38th parallel north, it keeps the two operations separate.
Where the Seoul Taco side is fast-casual and the ambiance is bright and frenetic with cartoonish murals and multicolored lights, Seoul Q’s vibe is stylishly rustic, simple but not exactly subtle. It’s as if the ancient Korean vision of a universe composed of earth, fire, water, wood and metal was distilled to fit into a singular space.
True to Korean cooking, Seoul Q combines the five pillars of flavor essential to Asian cuisine – salty, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter – and it brings together five key colors: red, yellow, white, black and green. It’s all designed to provide dizzying contrasts of spice, color and texture, and there was no better representation than banchan, refillable side dishes of beef croquette, fish cake, egg soufflé, pickled cucumber, three varieties of kimchi and sweet black fermented beans. There’s no rulebook here; just let your palate guide how you assemble everything.
Between the many meat choices, myriad side dishes and cooking processes, there’s a lot to take in. What may feel chaotic to some is downright adventuresome for others. The custom-built cement tables encourage communal dining. Eight are equipped with gas-fueled braziers and sleek, telescopic exhaust tubes overhead for DIY barbecuing, while six are outfitted with induction burners to keep the family-sized hotpots warm.
Fortunately, the menu is laid out clearly into appetizers, soups, hotpots, specials and barbecue. The trick for four of us at the grill table was figuring out how much to order. Because things can rapidly get out of hand, a helpful server is essential. Ours was, even though we still dialed back our order a bit.
The Seoul Ssam Wrap seemed a good way to get into the communal spirit of things before starting our grilling adventure; all we had to do was stuff crisp lettuce leaves with braised, caramelized pork belly and shoulder and radish kimchi, drizzle on one of several accompanying sauces, wrap and eat. But pacing was too fast – the rib-eye and flap tail steaks we ordered to grill later arrived together. Between the lettuce leaves, fillings, dipping sauces, grilled meats, bowls of rice and those six accompanying side dishes, the table was quickly overrun … and all that was before the order of marinated pork arrived for the grill. Yet none of it mattered once the passing of plates, the “here, try this,” and the grilling got into full gear.
With six beef and four pork offerings, there is no shortage of meat to grill yourself or with your server’s assistance, should you be intimidated. Our rib-eye was nicely marbled, and the flap tail (from the bottom sirloin butt) was lean and tender. Both took well to dipping sauces, including Pappy’s Seoul Q sauce, made with Pappy’s Original barbecue sauce punched up with vinegar, sesame oil and the sweet-hot red chile paste gochujang.
Of the three soups, we chose kimchi and soon doo boo. The former, with its sharp, acidic tang, layered heat and tomato-scented broth, could have cured anything from a cold to a hangover while the latter – rich with shrimp, mussels and silken tofu – got its deep, powerfully umami taste and smoky aroma from onions, mushrooms, kelp and anchovy.
The typical Korean beverages of choice are beer and rice wine. Two Korean beers, Cass and Hite, and one Nicaraguan beer, Toña, share space with a couple 4 Hands and Schlafly brews. There are bottles of Korean makali, a cloudy, sweet, fermented-rice liquor, and soju – the top-selling spirit in the world – an extremely smooth, clear, slightly sweet cross between sake and vodka. The cocktail list features five soju-based drinks, including a remarkably refreshing Seoul Reviver No. 4 that incorporates a ginger shrub, lemon juice and black sesame bitters.
Seoul Q doesn’t take reservations, but you can huddle around the small, standing-room-only bar tucked in the back corner, or you can cool your heels at a nearby cafe or bar and wait to be called or texted when your table is ready.
With so much food and grilling and mixing and ladling and tasting, confusion and fatigue can quickly set in. Fight it any way you can. The flavors are worth it. Just give in and let the experience flow. It will not only be one of the best meals you’ve eaten, but also the infectious, communal nature of Korean dining will be the most fun you’ve had in a long while.
At a glance
6665 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.925.8452, seoulqstl.com
DON’T MISS DISHES
Seoul Ssam Wrap, anything you grill yourself
Relaxed, stylishly rustic
Ranging from $16 specials to $40 for hotpots that serve two to three people
Sun. – 5 to 11 p.m., Mon. to Thu. – 5 p.m. to midnight, Fri. and Sat. – 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
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