I’m wild about Asian food. From India across Southeast Asia to Japan and China in all its regional delights, my Asian culinary favorite is usually whichever I had last.
But winter’s coming on now – believe it, even if the leaves are still mostly green and the breezes balmy as I write this – and cold weather makes my Asian dining fancy lightly turn to thoughts of Korean food.
Why does Korean food strike me as winter fare? Well, it’s hearty and filling, a cuisine that seems a cousin to Chinese with touches of Japan; but over many centuries it has evolved to fit the style of the land on which it lies. Korea’s changing climate – much like winter in the United States – gets people thinking about hearty stews, sturdy root vegetables, fermented goodies, and warming fire in red, piquant chilies and pepper sauce.
Today we’ll visit two favorites: Charim Korean Restaurant in St. Matthews, which recently launched an appealing new menu; and Rice Bowl in New Albany, a new spot that is already receiving raves from a lot of my Hoosier foodie friends.
Park in back of Rice Bowl’s large free-standing building, and inhale the appetizing, complex sinuous Korean scents breathing from the kitchen windows as you enter via its long concrete ramp. Inside, beige walls with little decor, quarry-tile floors and shiny, matte-black wooden tables and stylish chairs make for an austere but attractive mood.
The multi-page menu offers a good cross-section of Korean favorites, with about a dozen main dishes and house specials that range in price from $8.50 (for kimchi fried rice) to $16 (for a Ma La seafood and fish hot pot). A dozen Japanese-style ramen bowls are $9 to $13, a dozen appetizers are $2.50 to $10, and 10 lunch specials are $8 to $10). Beer is served, but no wine or liquor.
We started with a seafood pancake ($10, with fiery kimchi substituted for seafood). This savory, cabbage-scented plate-size pancake, cut into wedges, us topped with a mild red-chile sauce and an abundant selection of fiery kimchi.
Bibimbap ($11), a characteristic Korean main dish, is a mound of rice under an artistically arranged circle of onions, kimchi, chopped bok choy, carrot strips, bean sprouts and juicy, slightly sweet bulgogi, Korean barbecued beef, with a soft, over-easy fried egg on top.
Spicy kimchi fried rice ($8.50) was a hit, too. The rise is fried crisp and brown with a soy-based sauce, sauteed white onion, snipped green onion, scrambled egg and kimchi.
A delicious meal for two was a thrifty $31.60, plus a $7 tip for charming, efficient service.
3114 Grant Line Road
New Albany, Ind.
Robin Garr’s rating: 86 points
In its strip shred with Havana Rumba, Del Frisco’s and Half Peach, it can be hard to find parking in front, but there’s plenty of room in the “Old Sears” lot across the street.
The decor here is simple yet elegant also, with dark-rose walls subtly punctuated by floral arrangements on small shelves; white quarry tile floor and walnut woodgrain-look table tops.
About two dozen main dishes, including dinner soups, range from $8 (for ramen) to $18 (for Kalbi, the iconic Korean grilled short ribs). Thirteen apps, including a couple of variations on Korean-style fried chicken wings, are $5 to $12, and a dozen lunch specials are $8 to $11. There’s a very short list of modest wines, a sake, and a couple of bottom-line beers. Best bet is a Sapporo or Asahi Japanese beer ($7 large, $3.75 small).
Charim’s panchan, a complimentary six-dish array of shared condiments – quick-pickled boiled peanuts, cucumber slices with hot red pepper, savory bean sprouts in sesame oil, mildly funky strips of fish cake, spicy radish cubes and spicier kimchi – added delight to the table.
We started with shared appetizer orders of mandu and kimmari (both $6). Mandu, Korea’s answer to egg rolls, consisted of six short, torpedo-shaped fried-pastry rolls stuffed with an appetizing mix of cellophane noodles, tiny tofu dice, and leafy greens. Kimmari was a triangular stack of six crispy marinated cellophane noodles tightly rolled inside a seaweed leaf with a scent of the sea, then lightly fried tempura-style.
Pick of the evening was kalbi tang ($15), a warming soup that came steaming to the table in a heavy iron pot. It was built on a very fine beefy, black-pepper-scented broth filled with tender chunks of long-simmered beef short rib, sliced boiled radish and green onion.
Both the spicy, marinated grilled tofu bokkeum ($15) and jap-chae noodles ($12) were excellent, too. The tofu dish featured a generous portion of thin-sliced tofu squares that had been marinated in a spicy red-pepper sauce, then grilled and tossed with julienne onions and carrots and sliced scallions. The smoky, aromatic jap-chae started with long, thin cellophane noodles fried in a searing wok with a blend of spinach and scallions, sliced mushrooms, carrots and onions, in a dark soy-and-vinegar sauce.
Dinner for three at Charim came to $59.36, with a $12 tip for pitch-perfect service.
Charim Korean Restaurant
4123 Oechsli Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 89 points