Shilla on a Saturday
Step out of the F train at the 34th street stop and head to the exit at 32nd to the North East. When you get out and cross the street you will find yourself in Korea Town (K-Town). It's one block of 32nd street, between Broadway and 5th Ave. It's mostly Korean restaurants and Karaoke joints, a Korean book store, a Korean grocery store. This block of 32nd is the epicenter, there is a spill over of places in a 2 block radius of it.
Yesterday, JK was in the mood for Korean, so we met at Shilla, 37 West 32nd Street (shillanyc.com), near the corner of Broadway and 32nd on the north side. The facade is glass with two doors. Three people will greet you as you enter the restaurant. One of them is a gentleman in a suit who, if he sees you standing outside the restaurant, will wave and beckon you in. He might come outside to talk with you about the menu and the very excellent food as his restaurant.
It was raining yesterday and they have this contraption that will wrap your umbrella in a skinny plastic bag so that you can carry it with you into the restaurant without tracking water all over the place. Brilliant.
We were seated in the back and had immediate opinions on what to get. JK wanted Pork Belly BBQ. And I wanted Pajun, a giant pancake. In addition we after much discussion settled on getting Kalbi Tang a beef soup. The waitress persuaded us to upgrade to the Spicy Marinated Pork Belly.
They brought out many banchan, impressive in number, mostly just okay. The notable exception to this was a seaweed kimchi made from miyeok, which was excellent, spicy, a la dente, with a hint of the ocean. Their kimchi was serviceable but pretty mild. JK asked for an order of Radish Kimchi, Kkakdugi, which was a significant improvement, crunchy and spicy.
The pajun was greasy, crispy, and filling. We ate half and I took the other half home. Today it's a whole different animal. Possibly because I generally like food the day after but also perhaps because I was hungover this morning. Pajun is the perfect hangover food. It has carbs, grease, squid and it's crispy with a soft center. I think the day after the oil has more time to seep in. It's not as light. It's heartier with appropriate substance.
They kindly offered to cook the Pork Belly for us. We didn't want to smell of cooked meat, but of course everyone around us was bbq'ing at the table so we ended up smelling like cooked meat anyway. Getting it spicy marinated was an excellent suggestion. It was thinly sliced, tender, fatty, meaty, spicy, and a little bit sweet, especially at the points where the slices charred a little.
The Kalbi Tang was a big bowl of comfort. The broth was clear and fatty but not too fatty, salty but not too salty, with enormous tender hunks of beef the size of a fist and some thinly sliced daikon radish.
They brought us three bowls of rice. A nice touch for a table of two people.
The restaurant offered up a bonus round for their diners. At some point they brought out a big tray of small panfried whole fishes. Everyone in the restaurant got one. It was lightly battered and fried to a crisp, the length of my hand. I was too full to eat it yesterday but reheated it and had it today. Bony but satisfying, just salty enough, firm fleshed and while oily, not too fishy. And the tail and fins had an excellent crunch.
As I was reducing it to a pile of tiny bones, I realized that I am not a big fan of fish in filet form. But if you pass me a plate with the whole fish, head to tail, it's a real delight. Even if navigating the bones is perilous.
My father told me that as a kid, when the family had fish, his brother got the tail and he got the head. He said that the head was delicious. The best part. I always laughed at a child at my silly father. I doubted him but I had no way of knowing. How does the head of a fish taste? Today, having eaten as much of the head as I could discern to be digestible, I would agree that a lightly battered, pan fried fish head is indeed delicious.