8199 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Kearny Mesa
The adventure began with an email from a work colleague: “You’ve got to try this place, even if you don’t review it. You should just go and enjoy it.”
After checking blogs that gave more details (and more raves), I emailed my friend Sang, a second-generation Korean-American, and asked him to gather a posse that might enjoy trying authentic Korean cooking, something besides the usual grilled fleshorama. Do Re Mi House does offer six choices of barbecue, but it’s all cooked in the kitchen, not at the table. I was more interested in the other 25-odd dishes on the menu — traditional Korean dishes that might be served at home.
The dining room is medium-sized, simple, and squeaky-clean, with shiny tables the color of lacquered cherry-wood. On a Monday night, most were full at 7:00 p.m., and as they emptied, more diners arrived. There are two flat-screen TVs, one at the back of the room, which had the sound on, the other in the center, muted, with a non-hypnotic sideways view from the tables. That evening, both were playing something resembling Korea’s Got Talent! — an ever-changing array of cute girl groups, boy bands, and dancers to Korean bubblegum pop.
A poised, bouncy waitress took our drink orders — green tea, Korean beer, and a brand-new find: Baekseju, Korean rice wine made with a touch of ginger and “healthful herbs,” slightly chilled. It tasted dry, smooth, very clean, without that sharp cereal edge you get in some cheap sakes and Chinese rice wines. We couldn’t discern the ginger or herbs, but it went down cool and easy and suited the food. It won five converts. (Drivers be cautioned: It has the same 13 percent alcohol content as most sakes.)
When we finally got our order together — four appetizers and five entrées for a fivesome — our handsome young waiter was scandalized. “Way too much food!” he warned. He was right, of course (but he didn’t know we were there to review, not just gobble-gobble). We assured him we’d be glad to take home lots of food.
Just before our ordered dishes hit the table, the servers brought an amazing array of nearly a dozen banchen (also spelled panchan), the free side dishes that are the marks of Korean hospitality. The best known of these relishes is kimchi, spicy pickled cabbage, but that’s only one of a multitude of delicious little bites. Ordinary family meals at home typically include three of these relishes (or “chops”). At a restaurant, fewer than six chops indicates stinginess. Nine or more is lavish. A dozen is a banquet.
First, individually plated for each of us, were tangy little palate-clearers of sliced cucumbers, bean sprouts, and transparent, crunchy seaweed dotted with sesame seeds, in a light, tangy dressing. Then came a horde of communal saucers: two bowls of warm steamed eggs and scallions, delicate and very salty. (The leftovers, gently nuked next morning, made my best breakfast in months.) The requisite kimchi. Firm fingers of agar gelatin in an interesting, spicy sauce. Tiny, fiery anchovies in a dark, complex chili sauce with a touch of sweetness. A broccoli rabe-like steamed green. A crunchy, dark-green seaweed salad. Tiny, crisp-tender broccoli florets splashed with bottled Korean hot sauce. Pale-brown french-fry shapes; these were something faintly sweet and starchy, but not yam fries. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten one or two. The waiter surmised that our friend Jerry was Japanese and brought him a small plate of folded nori seaweed sheets — which Jerry used (but only a piece or two) to roll up rice and sauce.
Eating family-style here, you don’t get large entrée plates from which to scoop out portions of several dishes at once, but small appetizer plates, individual covered plastic containers of white rice, and small soup bowls, when appropriate. With a large order like ours, appetizers and mains mingle freely. A little nicety: they arrived gradually, not all dumped on the table at the same time. We had a chance to eat our fill of a few dishes, then the remains of these were packed up for another night’s feasting before the next group of items arrived.
My favorite appetizer was a bowlful of steamed meat dumplings — not pan-crisped like pot stickers or Japanese gyoza, but small, soft, thin-skinned, with a delicious light pork filling; they’re accompanied by a zingy soy-and-vinegar dip. I also got a kick from spicy chicken wings, Korea’s answer to Buffalo wings. They’re pan-fried tender and doused with bottled Korean hot sauce, but they’re spicier, since there’s none of Buffalo’s melted butter gentling the sauce, and no mouth-cooling celery and blue cheese dressing on the side. You’ll just have to search among the banchen for something soothing.
Okonomiyaki (oddly, a Japanese name for a traditional Korean dish that Sang remembers from home) is a pancake the diameter and thickness of an individual thin-crust pizza, filled with mixed veggies and a few small shrimp, served with a thick, slightly sweet dipping sauce. It’s not as interesting as the other menu possibilities.
Our dinner’s one total failure was the pair of gu-jul-pan “burritos” — they’re shown in one of the photo placards in the front window. “Korean traditional burrito,” the menu calls it, but don’t imagine any resemblance to the trendy Korean tacos — Korean barbecued meats wrapped in corn or flour tortillas and piled high with Mexican garnishes — currently sweeping the nation (L.A., NYC, Indiana, Georgia, Texas, but not yet San Diego). No, this burrito resembles a spring roll with dementia. The wrapping is a thick, chewy flour-based crêpe. The filling consists of tough julienne-cut raw vegetables, carrots, and something green and stalky, probably Chinese celery. Think of Clint Eastwood’s cold squint in a spaghetti western — they’re that unyielding. Jerry tried to halve one burrito with a knife he happened to be carrying — not a very sharp knife, as it didn’t make a dent. The veggies refused to surrender to the teeth as well.
Ah, but the entrées! Our simplest plate was Grilled Black Cod (aka sable), one of the world’s greatest fishes, rich but delicate. Its treatment, although simple, was worthy of the best local French-trained chefs (the bold, brave few who refuse to be intimidated by conventioneers demanding dried-out seafood). The flesh was opalescent, translucent, so tender you barely needed teeth. The skin was lively with a soy-and-sugar rub. Alongside were sweet grilled sliced onions strewn with a few tiny clover-shaped baby greens — nothing more, and nothing more required. If you appreciate sashimi for the pure tastes of each species, you’ll love this exquisite, lightly cooked version. But watch out for bones!