When I was in college, I spent weekends with my Korean roommate's family who lived near campus. Her mother spoke very little English and I spoke no Korean. But in one way, we understood each other perfectly. She was an excellent cook and I was an excellent eater. Her strong sense of hospitality and my unbridled enthusiasm for everything she cooked helped us form a strong, if silent, friendship. When I think of Korean food now, it's like the culinary equivalent of a warm blanket.
So I was excited to try Corea Blue -- a new Korean restaurant in the Russian Jack Plaza on DeBarr Road. The restaurant occupies a small, unassuming spot in a small, unassuming strip mall. Inside, the room is clean and sparse. Bright green walls, a few traditional dolls and an enormous refrigerator for soft drinks make up the bulk of the décor.
I took my daughter for lunch and we were greeted warmly and seated quickly by a woman who later proved to be our server and our cook. The menu is a fairly complete catalog of basic Korean specialties. Korean barbecue, pan-fried dishes, an extensive choice of soups and stews, and several varieties of bibimbap (a rice bowl dish served in a stone pot) are all available.
We started with an order of yaki mandu (pan-fried dumplings, $14). They were crispy and had a mild, filling of minced meat and vermicelli noodles. They were satisfying (and gone in no time) but not, perhaps, memorable. With so many options on the menu, I wished we had made a more adventurous choice.
Next came one of the great joys of Korean dining -- banchan, the tiny bowls of pickled and marinated vegetables that accompany most meals. On that day, the offerings were kimchi, pickled daikon, marinated bean sprouts, spicy, sliced cucumber, and what, I believe was a chewy firm tofu dish (I never got to the bottom of the identity of this dish, but I did physically get to the bottom of the dish).
For a main course, we shared the galbi lunch special ($14), a generous portion of barbecue beef short ribs served in thin slices on the bone. It was delicious -- long-marinated with a hint of char (in the flavor, not the texture) and fun to eat off the bone with our fingers.
We also shared an order of jap chae ($13), a pan-fried noodle dish served with beef and vegetables. The thin, slippery glass noodles were slightly sweet with a distinct sesame flavor. The order came up with a generous portion of beef that, while plentiful, was on the tough side and not quite as well-trimmed as I would like. I would have preferred a smaller portion of leaner meat and more noodles.
Service was pleasant and attentive but a bit slow for someone on a lunch hour. (It should be noted that a second worker had arrived while we were leaving and the pace in the dining room seemed to be picking up.)
That same week, a friend of mine joined me for an early dinner. To start, we opted for the kimchi jun (Korean-style pancakes with kimchi and vegetables, $16). Crispy, pleasantly greasy, and just a wee bit spicy; the pancake is the kind of dish that you start craving before you're done eating it. As an entrée, my companion ordered the jeonju bibimbap ($15) while I ordered the kimchi jigae (kimchi stew $15). The bibimbap is comfort in a bowl -- sweet, salty slices of beef, sticky rice, julienned vegetables and a soft cooked sunny-side-up egg to provide a creamy, unctuous sauce. The dish comes with two traditional sauces served on the side, one spicy and one mild, but I preferred the dish more relatively "naked."
The kimchi stew arrives at the table bubbling invitingly. The thin, spicy broth is the perfect flavor backdrop for the mild, custardy tofu. My only complaint was the pork which was bland and, for my tastes, could have been omitted altogether. However, the rest of the dish is so flavorful and appealing that the pork was easy to ignore.
While I'm not looking forward to the end of summer, I can face it knowing that this soup is in my winter arsenal. It is a dish I would order again and again.
I'd love to go back in time to my roommate's living room, watching Korean soap operas while her mom chopped vegetables, mixed marinades and rubbed chili paste into cabbage leaves for homemade kimchi. But since I can't, Corea Blue is a nice trip down memory lane. And one I'll be making again.
By MARA SEVERIN
Daily News correspondent