Seoul Food

At Takamatsu, enjoy a dining experience that excites all the senses.

Ah, the smell of grilling meats greeted me at the entrance. It had been a few years since Korean food had seared my multi-ethnic-loving palate and I was ready to taste its many splendored earthy flavors again.

At Takamatsu, you can choose from the Korean barbecue room, the sushi bar area and the teppan yaki room where a chef will slice, dice and cook your food a la Japanese dinner theater-style. We opted for door number one--Korean barbecue. It appeared to be the most popular choice: By 6 p.m. on a Saturday night the joint was jumping with groups of diners and the sounds of sizzling meats.

This is not a date place in the romantic sense. It's probably good for couples who don't have much to say over dinner because the food preparation can keep them fairly occupied. It's great for families and friends who talk loudly or get somewhat boisterous because noises vibrate around the hard surfaces.

Being the princess that I sometimes am, my three friends were taken aback when I announced that we wanted to grill our meats at the table. Our server said the chef was happy to grill the meats in the kitchen but I insisted that we wanted the total experience.

For starters we ordered three appetizers--and waited 25 minutes for the first one to debut. I chalked it up to the surge of people who entered all at once forcing a queue out to the parking lot. Finally the gyoza ($4.95), steamed dumplings filled with beef and vegetables, appeared. The serving dish leaned precariously every time I tried to dip a dumpling in sauce. Elizabeth thought the yakatori ($5.50), three index finger-size chicken and vegetable skewers, skimpy.

Another server tried to light our tabletop barbecue but when we ordered the entrees, I specifically requested not to be rushed and had yet to receive our third appetizer. There was a parade of people waiting on us but none knew the whereabouts of sashimi ($10.95). The original server came to the table and apologized for forgetting the sashimi and asked if we still wanted it; yes, we did. Another server returned determined to light the barbecue.

The 10-piece chef's choice sashimi appetizer was worth waiting for--fresh, thick slices of hamachi, maguro, salmon and crab--and was devoured just as the platter of bulgogi ($13.95)--thinly-sliced marinated beef--arrived.

With our limited experience of how to proceed, a server cut the beef, the marinating chicken ($10.95) and an enormous white onion into smaller pieces using a kitchen scissors; then she showed us how to cook. All was accomplished at warp speed. Luckily Scarlett was in a good mood and wearing black as she got splattered with meat marinade. Overhead exhaust hoods on individual tables squelched excessive smokiness.

Rice bowls and a stack of red lettuce leaves crowded onto the table along with eight side dishes. When I think of side dishes, I think of mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, rice and beans, creamed corn, green beans, baked beans, buttery carrots, applesauce. Here the side dishes were more like condiments or variations of kimchee. We didn't know what most of them were. Upon asking our server, she pointed to the reddish ones saying they were hot. Seth had a brilliant marketing idea. He thought the side dishes should be photographed and laminated much like some sushi menus so uninitiated diners would know more about what they were eating; however, not knowing didn't cause us any pause. We tasted everything--raw, blanched, or slightly cooked vegetables seasoned with soy, vinegar, garlic and chiles. We deftly wrapped bits of grilled meats, rice and condiments into the red leaf lettuce envelopes: Perhaps the answer to a Korean burrito.

During our feeding frenzy, the seafood and green onion pancake (haemul pa jeon $13.95) was delivered. Scarlett declared it a cross between the best of a frittata and pizza. Round like a pizza and cut in slices, the delicate consistency of the seafood proved to be our favorite but the proposed pancake dipping sauce was too salty for my taste buds.

Last and least liked were stir-fried sweet potato noodles with vegetables and beef (jap chae $10.95). Surprisingly we all envisioned delicate orange noodles but instead a brown mountain of slippery cellophane noodles flecked with slivers of carrot and mushrooms and minimal bits of beef sat in a darker brown sauce.

Although our iced teas were replenished frequently, we had to request forks for the chopstick-challenged and more than once asked and waited for additional napkins as this was a delightfully messy meal. Service was mostly satisfactory but the pacing rushed and sometimes abrupt. Four of us were seated at a cooking table for six and with all the platters and side dishes, tabletop space was crunched.

For dessert the cold and creaminess of tempura-fried ice cream oozing whipped cream contrasted with the saltiness and spiciness of our meal. Kitchen scissors left at the table came in handy for snipping at the batter. More restaurants should offer kitchen scissors in order to encourage sharing.

I will return to taste the many intriguing varieties of roll sushi (Tucson roll, 9-1-1 roll, S.O.S. roll). I'll let the kitchen cook my dinner in its entirety and may order a seafood pancake with a side of spicy chili paste or wasabi and soy sauce instead.

Matshikgay moni desey yo! (Enjoy and eat plenty at Takamatsu.)

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