8199 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, San Diego
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!
The winner of the Miss Popularity crown at our table’s “Korea’s Got Cooking Talent!” contest was Tofu Kimchi Bokum, quite another kettle of fish — or rather, pork and hot cabbage. And what pork. The thin, tender slices are irresistibly seasoned — with what, I haven’t a clue, but it certainly brings out the best in the pig meat. The slices mingle in a riotous stir-fry with spicy kimchi, while around the edges of the bowl stand sentries of thick triangles of firm, unadorned tofu, to cool the fires, or to toss into the mixture as a neutral balance to the kimchi.
Hot and Spicy Galbi Tang is a soup with ultra-tender braised short-rib meat (and loose bones) with cabbage shreds in a rich, meaty, deeply satisfying broth. It’s moderately spicy but won’t blow your head off. (Perhaps they gentled it a bit for a table with only one Korean-American.) This is fabulous comfort food if your comforts include a little piquancy — warming on a cold night, cooling on a hot one. If you want to cool it down or fill it out a bit, you’ve got that bowl of rice on your table to mix in.
We all wished for bigger, better shrimp in Shrimp Japchae with Korean Leeks, rather than the small, dull-flavored specimens that couldn’t hold their own in this fierce-flavored treatment. They were pan-fried with an army of thin-sliced scallions in a spicy, savory red-brown sauce, mingling with thin, tender cellophane noodles.
One of my favorite Korean dishes takes some instruction to eat properly. Bibimbap arose as a home dish to absorb a heap of leftover scraps, including rice, a sort of Korean Sunday supper. It’s pretty much the equivalent of Chinese fried rice and is pronounced like a jazz drummer’s final rim shot — bee BIM bop. In the more elaborate Dol Sat Bibimbap, the mixture comes in a hot-stone or regular stoneware casserole filled with rice that’s crisped around the edges, along with julienned vegetables, Asian mushroom slices, and perhaps some bits of meat. At the last minute, a lightly fried or poached egg is plopped on top — and here’s where the instruction comes in — which you stir in along with plenty of Korean chili sauce (which comes bottled on the table).
I have to admit my favorite Dol Sat Bibimbap was at the famed Brothers BBQ in SF (which that barbecue-blessed city has nicknamed “Seoul Brothers”), considered by Koreans to be, perhaps, the best Korean restaurant in the U.S. Theirs was delivered dangerously sizzling, and the waitress stirred up the rice with a wooden paddle, to dislodge all the crackly bits, then rapidly stirred in the requisite (very ample) amount of bottled Korean hot sauce. At the end, she broke a raw egg on top and stirred it in to cook lightly in the still-sizzling rice. Wow, love at first bite!
At Do Re Mi, less of the rice is crackly, there’s a smaller assortment of ingredients, and you have to stir in the precooked egg and the hot sauce yourself. (And the hot sauce is a different brand, one that’s less complex than at Brothers.) The dish is still very tasty, comparable to the version at the popular Buga a few blocks away. But remember, you must stir in hot sauce, as much as you think you can handle, to bring the concoction to full, vibrant life.
At the end, Do Re Mi’s generosity is so complete, it even includes a subtle little dessert, a teacup filled with persimmon juice dotted with pine nuts. How sweet!
Our gluttonous review meal (which included over a week’s worth of terrific takeout for one) cost all of $32 per person, including drinks, tip, tax. A normal couple or group of eaters can figure on about $20 per person for dinner, tout compris. (The lunch specials, which typically include rice, include dumpling, salad, and soft drink for $10 or under — plus banchen — before tax.)
Even more important: “I think this is now my favorite Korean restaurant,” said Sang, who feels that Buga’s food has lost something as it’s gained popularity. (The management may have changed, too.) The rest of us readily agreed on Do Re Mi’s virtues. This is more relaxing than dealing with the heat, the meats, and the DIY tensions of tabletop barbecue. Yes, you can buy BBQ here — but the rest of the menu, with its rich, spicy soups and stews, is where the real treasures lie. And they are treasures.■
Do Re Mi House
★★★ 1/2 (Very Good to Excellent)
8199 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, suite M (at Mercury Street), Kearny Mesa, 858-565-2085; no website (email: [email protected])
HOURS: 11:00 a.m.–midnight daily.
PRICES: Starters, $6–$10; entrées, $9–$17 (some dishes $27 for two). Lunch combos, $8–$10 until 2:30 p.m. (except holidays).
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Wide variety of traditional Korean dishes (including six BBQ choices cooked in kitchen, rather than at the table), many spicy, served with immense array of free side dishes. Soft drinks, teas, Korean beers, and rice wine (soju).
PICK HITS: Steamed meat dumplings; spicy chicken wings; grilled black cod; Tofu Kimchi Bokum (stir-fried pork with kimchi and tofu); Hot and Spicy Galbi Tang (short-rib soup). Good bets: King dumplings (pot stickers); Squid Bokum; Agu Jjim (steamed anglerfish with bean sprouts, for two); Budae Chigae (soup with kimchi, ham, sausage, if available).
NEED TO KNOW: Given the large portions and numerous side dishes, one dish per person (appetizer or main) should suffice in a shared meal; entrées are generally more interesting. Hospitable service, sufficient English spoken. Often crowded; reserve to avoid a wait. One front table reserved for disabled patrons. About ten vegan dishes (mainly tofu variations).