Restaurant Reviews

Restaurant review: Gangnam plays Korean spice (not pop hits)

Wasabi owners Hee Park and Sukie Cheong are currently playing the restaurant equivalent of musical chairs.

In early June, they closed their popular sushi joint on Orchard Street and announced they would be reopening the restaurant on Apple Street in east Boise later this summer.

In the same breath, the husband-and-wife team declared they would be revisualizing the Wasabi space with a Korean concept, a place with a name that’s easy to remember if you follow pop culture.

Does Gangnam ring a bell?

Of course, the restaurant is not named after the chart-topping hit, “Gangnam Style,” but rather the Gangnam District, an affluent part of Seoul.

Park and Cheong, who hail from South Korea, felt it was a good time to open a Korean restaurant in Boise — one that favors traditional fare over trendy fusion cuisine. They even brought in a chef from Seoul, Helena Jeong, Sukie’s sister, to run the kitchen.

Korean food, with all its fire and ferment, is strange and wonderful when not dumbed down to appease American palates.

While Gangnam does offer a few holdout Japanese dishes from Wasabi’s menu, it primarily focuses on Seoul-inspired cuisine, which is friendly to the gluten-free crowd.

Once seated, I was happy to receive an array of traditional banchan plates. You know, those gratis tiny dishes of kimchi and other fermented goodies meant to get things started.

Gangnam stays the traditional course with its banchan selection, and they keep them coming throughout the meal. Be prepared to taste a fiery napa cabbage kimchi, cucumber kimchi, pickled broccoli, squid in chili sauce, sesame glass noodles and a savory pancake flecked with carrot and scallion, to name a few.

With banchan like this, who needs appetizers? I didn’t find many Korean starters on the menu anyway, except for the yang nyum tofu ($5), a shallow bowl of silky steamed tofu triangles draped in a spicy fish sauce with hints of sweetness.

Japanese gyoza, Korean mandu or the ubiquitous Chinese pot sticker, it’s all the same thing, really. Gangnam calls its dumplings gyoza ($4), as did Wasabi. Regardless of the name, expect to get five steamed wonton wrappers pinched tightly around a lump of gingery ground pork and chopped scallion. These pedestrian dumplings are nothing to write home about, but the vinegary chili dipping sauce made a definite pronouncement from the Korean peninsula.

Koreans love beef — especially in the form of barbecue — yet I found the kalbi short ribs ($18/dinner) to be on the tough side. To the kitchen’s credit, the flavor of the marinade (redolent of soy sauce, garlic and brown sugar) was spot on, giving the barbecued ribs a slightly fruity essence.

Bibimbap ($11/dinner) is not only fun to say, but it’s fun to eat as well. A large stainless steel bowl contains steamed white rice arranged with a composition of seasoned minced beef, fermented bean sprouts, daikon radish, wood mushrooms, wilted spinach and walnuts, drizzled with a piquant chili paste-based sauce. A raw egg shimmers on top, just waiting to have its yolk popped.

Thick soups and hot pots bring families together around the communal dinner table. It’s comfort food in South Korea.

One day, I went for the kimchi jigae ($9/lunch), a nose-clearing stew thick with napa cabbage, tofu, shredded pork, serrano pepper and scallion in a kimchi-kicked broth. It was served in a little cauldron next to a metal canister brimming with steamed white rice.

During another visit, my dining partner and I decided to try the bullak hot pot with octopus and boiled bulgogi beef. But a minute or so after our friendly waiter took the order, out came a cook to tell us the bullak stew was no longer on the menu. She said customers complained that the octopus was “too chewy.”

With cephalopods on our minds, we quickly changed the order to a squid stir-fry ($19/dinner), a wok-seared tangle of mostly tender tentacles, cabbage and scallion in a fiery chili sauce, next to a mound of rice noodles and a tin of steamed rice. It was a good substitute for the stew, albeit expensive for what we got.

Other seafood dishes include a Japanese-inspired chirashi ($13/lunch). This is more of a salad than a rice dish, as the menu states, but it’s a refreshing pick on a hot day. Essentially, chirashi is a bed of warm rice topped with mixed greens, little cubes of sashimi (yellowtail and salmon), sliced cucumber, long strands of imitation crab and bright orange beads of flying fish roe. A drizzle of spicy sesame dressing accented the oceanic flavors, as did a gingery chili sauce that comes in a big squirt bottle.

Like all new restaurants, Gangnam is still working out some kinks on the menu. But it’s the most traditional Korean food Boise has seen in a long time.

Statesman reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: