Restaurateur Steven Han is the young, successful owner of a collection of Japanese restaurants in Seattle, places where cool kids and aficionados eat. He is a sort of Asian Ethan Stowell — about the same age with three restaurants to Stowell's six.
Stowell’s restaurants are all Italian even though he is not explicitly Italian. Similarly, Han’s restaurants (Umi Sake House, Kushibar, and Momiji) are all Japanese, even though he happens to be Korean.
In casual conversation late last year, I asked Han why, being a first-generation Korean-American, he has never attempted to add a Korean restaurant to his empire. Two of his places are in Belltown, one in Capitol Hill. All are polished, efficiently run, and reasonably respect the traditions behind the food they serve.
Paraphrased, he answered, “If I opened a Korean restaurant, I’d want to do it right, without compromising, a place Koreans would be impressed by.” To which he added, “I don’t think Seattle is ready for that.”
Korean food is probably the least messed with of all the cuisines to immigrate to America. Korean restaurants cook for Koreans (and those willing to eat like one), which is why so many of them are in the suburbs around Seattle, where a preponderance of Korean-Americans live.
Not coincidentally, America has been slow to embrace Korean food, and to this day the relationship is defined by segregation. To eat it around here, you have to travel to Lynnwood or Federal Way, forgoing atmosphere and contending with inscrutable menus and sometimes frosty service.
Into this culinary apartheid entered the Kalbi Grill Express, which opened last year on Greenwood Avenue North at North 82nd Street. As its name suggests, it is not a full-service restaurant. The abridged menu is posted on a board behind the counter, where customers order. They can sit at one of about 10 tables or take food to go, which many do.
Kalbi Grill broke several long-standing postulates about Korean restaurants:
- It opened in a non-Korean neighborhood, a non-college neighborhood, throwing itself into an upscale urban mix of locavore bistros, artisan ice cream parlors, gastropubs and wine bars.
- It is not Korean fusion, which is hot right now (Korean-style hot dogs and Korean tacos) as are high-end, Western treatments of Korean food (like Fremont's Revel).
- It does not serve teriyaki (many owners of teriyaki shops are Korean and offer some Korean food on the side) or any food that resembles Japanese, Chinese or Thai food. The menu is not 30 percent Korean, but 100 percent.
- The customer interface, everything from the menu, the website, the ordering system, to the décor and the set-up is modern and familiar. Functionally, it resembles a Chipotle store, which is the point.
Kalbi Grill is a mother-daughter concern. Mother Hye-kyong Lee cooks and runs the kitchen; daughter Jeanna Lee runs the register and all external aspects of the business like the website and media relations. She grew up in the north end and graduated from the University of Washington.
Given its location, the restaurant is not counting on a customer base of Korean immigrants. Rather than water down the food, the Lees started with a very basic menu without too many options, with a mind to add items slowly over time.
Opening Kalbi Grill was “personal,” Jeanna said. “This is the food my brother and I grew up on.”
Personal? Once, Mrs. Lee came out of the kitchen and pulled a bowl of stew away from a customer when she saw him attempt to pour soy sauce into it. She meant it as a caring gesture, although it’s not clear the customer understood it that way. She took the bowl back into the kitchen to add more salt – Korean soups and stews are frequently served under-salted as it’s understood you can add your own at the table (a small crock of rock salt is a common site at a Korean table) – rather than allow her creation to be contaminated with an ingredient not meant to be part of the dish. She returned the doctored bowl a minute later.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!