Over the last decade, Nashville’s dining options have increased exponentially as Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Salvadoran and Persian restaurants have planted flags along our city’s international food corridors. Of all the cultural experiences available, Korean cuisine—with its far-flung ingredients and unique presentation—offers as much opportunity for exploration as any of them.
The most recent Korean restaurant to delight and amuse is Seoul Garden, a project of two South Korea natives, brothers Kevin and Victor Shin. Tucked just off the Nolensville Road thoroughfare in the H.G. Hill Center on Edmondson Pike, Seoul Garden is a tidy little storefront with seating for approximately 60, including a row of tables with heavy-duty stainless-steel range hoods overhead for tabletop cooking. With a fresh decor accented by orchids and a flat-screen TV, the Shin brothers, along with chef Young Soo Shin (no relation), have created a comfortable and familiar environment for exploring the wonders of Korean cuisine.
One hallmark of Korean dining is the intriguing tradition of banchan, appetizers selected by the chef and sent to the table in small bowls. Think of banchan as the chips and salsa of the Korean table. At Seoul Garden, the banchan generally include an assortment of vegetables and seafood—spicy radish strings, sautéed spinach with sesame oil, kimchee (spicy cabbage), fish cake and seasoned bean sprouts, to name just a few. Among the more delicious banchan we encountered were crunchy slices of a fruit akin to a pear marinated in vinegar and jalapeño peppers. (Though our servers all spoke English reasonably well, we still never managed to ascertain the fruit’s identity.) Others at the table particularly enjoyed the odang (fish cake), but the texture of the pressed fish left me wondering whether I was eating animal or vegetable, which I found disconcerting. The marinated cucumber slices with toasted sesame seeds were a delectable, nutty twist on a Southern staple. The great thing about Seoul Garden’s banchan (and the banchan at most Korean restaurants) is that the tiny bowls are bottomless. So if you like one thing more than another, there’s more where that came from, and the servers at Seoul Garden are eager to deliver and explain.
There is a distinct risk of filling up on banchan, especially if you are offered some of the heavier items, such as the pajun (egg pancake filled with various vegetables and seafood), in your spread. In fact, it might be worth asking which items you’ll be getting prior to selecting your entrée. On one occasion, we had pajun overkill—we ordered the haemul pajun (the seafood pancake), unaware that another pajun would be a banchan item.
If you’re into audience participation, ask for a table with a grill and a range hood overhead. There’s a minimum order of two barbecue meals per grill table, and they are among the more expensive items on the menu. But the servings are generous, the experience is a lot of fun, and most importantly, the food is excellent. The most memorable order over three visits was the elegantly simple galbi (grilled beef short ribs). Sizzling over the coals, the galbi’s sweet marinade sent up an aromatic prelude so tempting that the cooking process seemed to stand still.
If you choose this route, be sure you have someone at your table willing to assume the mantle of designated grillmaster, because someone needs to keep an eye on things. When the tender meat is cooked—which happens quickly enough, since the beef is so thin—there’s a pair of scissors for dividing up the bounty. Here again, the service was very accommodating.
The same process applies to the sam gyeop sal (grilled pork loin). Thick chunks of fatty pork come off the grill like oversized lardons, to be dipped in a simple, rich mixture of toasted sesame oil and salt. (We enjoyed the dish, though the Korean food aficionados at our table said that it’s typically sliced much thinner.) The barbecue dishes were so fresh and tender, with such simple, intense flavor, that the grilled pork and chicken of the bulgogi paled in comparison.
Tabletop cooking makes for a great group meal, so you might consider ordering as a team to get a variety of vegetables and starches in addition to the meat. We also enjoyed yuk gae jang, a spicy soup with beef, leeks and glassy noodles. The generous bowl recalled Vietnamese pho, but the rich broth had a redder tint and a chili zing. The jap chae (stir-fried sweet potato noodles with vegetables) was a similarly comforting meal with brothy noodles and fresh cabbage, scallions, red bell pepper and carrots, though I preferred the spiciness of the yuk gae jang. And there are plenty of vegetarian options, including hefty blocks of tofu in a sauce of soy, sesame, scallions and chili.
The Seoul Garden menu overlaps with familiar Japanese fare, including various sushi items. While we did not order the straightforward sushi, we enjoyed the kimbap roll, with rice, beef and chopped vegetables wrapped in rice and seaweed, then sliced to reveal jewel-like cross sections. The combination recalled the bibimbap, a similar medley of warm, spicy beef and cool crisp vegetables drizzled with a spicy, slightly sweet sauce and served in a large bowl. While the Seoul Garden version does not actually come with the titular bob (rice)—the rice comes in a separate bowl on the side—it is topped with the traditional fried egg.
A slightly more expensive variation known as dolsot bibimbap comes in a hot stone bowl with rice in the bottom. As the rice sits against the piping-hot bowl, it becomes crunchy, adding a nutty texture to the mixture. Though some in our party felt that the dolsot version was worth the extra dollar, I preferred the basic cool bowl. In either case, the fusion of cool, light salad and warm, hearty meal is an unusual juxtaposition and—like so much about Korean cuisine—a refreshing break from the ordinary.
Seoul Garden is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 on Sunday.
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