Sometimes it takes me a while to check out certain restaurants. I can drive by a place and remain curious about it for months before finally stepping inside; usually I wind up kicking myself for not having gone sooner. That's certainly the case with my latest discovery, Buga Korean Barbecue Restaurant.
When it comes to Asian cuisine, Vietnamese and Korean are my favorites. They both emphasize fresh ingredients, garlic and hot chilies, and they both employ a form of barbecue. In the case of Korean restaurants like Buga, the barbecuing is done right at your table.
We sat on either side of the immaculately clean, marble tabletop, separated by a small metal gas grill, and studied our menus. Lots of options here, like seasoned rib eye, prime sirloin, beef tongue, chicken and seafood. At our server's suggestion, we opted for the galbee (marinated beef short rib) and the Black Canadian Berkshire pork.
The way the barbecue was served was pretty cool. First came a nice salad of green lettuce, sprouts and cabbage, bathed in a sweet and savory rice vinegar/ sesame oil dressing. The meats arrived while we ate our salad-two giant marinated short ribs and a platter of thickly sliced, uncured pork belly. After our server cut up the meat and put it on the grill, along with mushrooms and sliced onion, she left, soon returning with a cart full of small plates of sauces and side dishes, which she set down around the grill.
There was Korean potato salad, rich with eggs and mayonnaise and studded with green apple chunks; some kind of spicy marinated root vegetable; marinated fish cake; sweet soy sauce-dressed soy beans; marinated bean sprouts; and kimchi, spicy pickled cabbage. Three different wraps for our barbecue were also served: fresh green-leaf lettuce, soft sheets of rice-flour cake and thinly sliced daikon radish marinated in wasabi-seasoned vinegar.
As our meat finished cooking, our server added more to the grill and showed us how to eat it-taking a piece of meat, dipping it in one of the sauces and wrapping it in one of the wrappers. The whole meal is eaten this way. A little bit of meat, a little bit of a side dish, some more meat-you get the idea.
The meal was a delight. The beef was tender and flavorful, the sweet soy marinade undergoing a remarkable transformation from grilling, with the sugars in the marinade caramelizing on the meat. The pork belly was also excellent, cooking up crisp like bacon but not as salty or with all those nitrates. The dipping sauce was genuinely spicy and went very well with the pork and the wasabi-marinated radish slices. The side dishes were also very good, and the potato salad was a definite high point-I'd go back just for that.
At the end of our meal, the server returned with two shallow bowls filled with a cool, deep-red liquid: sweet cinnamon tea, a traditional meal ender in Korea. It was a soothing counterpoint to all the garlic and chilies in our meal.Price-wise, Buga is in line with other Korean establishments. The galbee was about $20 and the pork $17-but the portions were enormous, and the quality of the meat very high. The service was spot-on as well-friendly and informative, which is good because this kind of food can be intimidating for the uninitiated.