Saturday, January 30, 2016

Gimme Kimchi

When I first moved to the greater Portland area, I was thrilled to note that there were two Korean restaurants on the Portland peninsula. Seoul Kitchen, near city hall, I even reviewed on this blog. The second restaurant, whose name I forget but which was in the West End, near Sun Oriental Market, actually had better food (though inferior service). The details of their names and locations no longer matter, however, as Seoul Kitchen has gone out of business, and the second restaurant rebranded itself as Mi Sen, a "pan-Asian" noodle bar.

I was disappointed about that, but living as I do in the northern suburbs, I took solace in the continued existence of Chopsticks Restaurant in Yarmouth, a Japanese-Korean establishment. Like most such places in areas without a large Korean-American community, its menu was heavy on standard Japanese fare, with a scattering of Korean dishes. At least if I had a craving for yuk gye jang (spicy beef broth with clear noodles), I had a nearby place to sate it. So I was disappointed on a recent visit to find most of the Korean specialties, including the yuk gye jang, gone from the menu. I settled for the bibimbap (still tasty).

Before I launch into my complaint/analysis of the situation, let me mention in the interests of full disclosure, that I was have not been a frequent diner at any of these establishments. I blame my wife. The fiery, fermented flavors of Korean food, the enthusiastic use of fatty cuts of meat, offal, bony fish, and marine invertebrates, and the out-of-control, grandmotherly portions--all the things about it that bring me to ecstasy, that earned my love in my years living in Flushing, Queens--are emphatically not to her taste. I have had to sate my cravings occasionally, either on my own or in the company of my culinarily adventurous daughter. As a result, while I would not claim to be personally to blame for our region's lack of Korean food, my patronage was far from enough to help preserve what we had.

So why has Korean food not taken root in Portland? This is not an easy question to answer, because if one were to describe the style of the local chefs and restaurants at the vanguard of our burgeoning food scene, the description I gave earlier of the Korean palate--"fiery, fermented flavors ... enthusiastic use of fatty cuts of meat, offal, bony fish, and marine invertebrates"--fits that scene to a tee. Nor are Korean ingredients and techniques wholly absent from the menus of such places. In a pinch, a half dozen wild Maine oysters with kimchi ice at Eventide will remind me of what I miss, if I can fight my way through the crowds of tourists. Under the same ownership, and for the time being more accessibly, The Honey Paw enthusiastically plunders the cuisines of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Latin America for inspiration, and more often than not executes with sublime results. Across the street at the EastEnder, the pork belly burger with gochujang mayo is delicious. And just as restaurants in Japan have been doing in recent years, Masa Miyake has been drawing on Korean cookery to enliven the flavors at his restaurants to great effect. If you want to bring some of that flavor home, at the Portland Farmers Market, the fellows at Thirty Acre Farm make a credible kimchi (though the selection of spicy pickled vegetables at Sun Market is still far more extensive).

If you know even a little bit about the last hundred years of Korean history, then you know that both Japan and the United States have had an overtly colonial relationship with that nation. And so as reassuring as the contributions of Korean gastronomy to the menus of some of our city's best (and most expensive) restaurants have been, this is all more than a little problematic. A little kimchi here, a little gochujang there, feels adventurous and "exotic" to the overwhelmingly white restaurant-going public. Mixing that gochujang with some raw skate wing (complete with cartilage), serving up the local crab raw and fermented, putting some blood sausage and intestines together with the kimchi into a hearty stew--that's all just a touch too "out there" for our supposedly adventurous eaters.

Or is it? The restaurant business is notoriously fickle. Margins are thin, and the slightest perturbation can send a formerly successful eatery into a downward spiral. Perhaps it is not that Portland is not ready for Korean food, but that we have had bad luck with the restaurants that have tried so far, into which I am reading too much. If any aspiring Korean-American restaurateurs are looking to open up in a place where the market for their cuisine is wide open, consider Portland, Maine. Publicize your opening well, and don't be surprised if some guy shows up with his eight-year-old daughter in tow, ready to order the soondae gook.