Gyenari Korean BBQ & Lounge is introducing Korean food to non-Koreans. I’m a non-Korean (despite my fondness for scotch and banchan), but I’m not necessarily the target audience because I actively seek out Korean food in Koreatown (with the help of the LA blogging community, of course). Culver City is a good place for them to start, as there’s a varied cultural demographic and tons of restaurants.
Gyenari’s most recent attempt to capture the mouths and minds of non-Koreans is with Next Food Network Star contestant Debbie Lee. Her Food Network bio literally embodies what Gyenari is trying to do: Lee’s “Korean heritage and Southern upbringing make a dynamic combination as she uniquely blends Asian and American cuisines.”
I was invited to try Debbie Lee and Gyenari’s new Seoulful dishes and jumped at the opportunity. As today begins Korean Thanksgiving (Chuseok) it seemed appropriate to post about it today.
First, Gyenari is huge. The bar area alone is bigger than all of Beverly Soon Tofu. The restaurant sprawls across thousands of square feet and is designed in comfortable, clean colors with exposed brick walls (which may be a prerequisite building code in Culver City).
We had a private room which comfortable housed our table of 8.
We started off with soju caipirinhas (lots of fresh limes, raspberries, muddled lychee, soju, splash of soda). Gyenari’s extensive cocktail menu offers a wide range of non-Korean drinks from this sweet/fresh Brazilian/Korean blend to Marker’s Mark Floats (with Baileys, root beer and whipped cream) and Korean Malts (soju, scotch, coke and hefeweizen style lemon wedge).
Our tasting menu began with Sesame Cured Salmon, Daikon and Cucumber Julienne, Korean Mustard Aioli. This light starter was smoked by Chef Lee herself. A nice touch that didn’t require any sauce.
Next was Pumpkin Porridge, Toasted Pine Nuts, Soju Dates, Kombu Crisp. A traditional Korean dish, notably for fall and winter, this take was smooth, sweet and the crisp/nut combo added good textural juxtaposition. I’ve never had traditional pumpkin porridge so I don’t have a point of reference. I’ll leave the Korean contingent to decide how this one stacks up.
Pickled Watermelon, Shaved Pork Belly, Daikon Sprouts, Kimchee Citrus Vinaigrette was the next course. Kimchee was inevitably gonna surface in this meal and it seems to be Korean food’s biggest obstacle in conquering the American palate. In this form it was very mild and didn’t over power the subtle sweetness of the watermelon. The pork however, was dry.
The next plate was my favorite of the night. Small Bites Trio Including: Shrimp and Scallion Jeon, Traditional Dipping Sauce, Chive Oil —- Filet and King Oyster Roulade, Mushroom Soy Reduction —- Mung Bean Pancakes, Young Ginger, Soy Vinegar. These traditional Korean pancakes were a bit thicker than ones I’ve previously had but were packed with flavor. The roulade was cooked well with a simple sauce.
I wasn’t a fan of the next dish. Pan Fried Halibut, Egg Battered, Kimchee Stir-Fry, Fried Shiso Leaf. The fish was dense and firm and on the bland side, although the egg batter was very well executed. Stir-fried kimchee is another inventive way to introduce it to the non-Korean palate.
Lee’s Glabee Jjim, Traditional Style, Chestnuts, Baby Carrots was a flavor-packed, comfort-inducing take on famed Korean braised short ribs. You can tell she’s mastered this dish through the years and chestnuts are a great addition.
Doenjang Chigae, Hobak was another traditional dish cooked with a little less oomph than you might find in K-town but definitely not lacking in flavor. This simpler version featuring zucchini and tofu was satisfying but I’d also have to leave it up to those who grew up eating this to compare to theirs.
Spicy Chocolate Creme Brulee, Bacon Shortbread, Almond Cream was a badass dessert that I didn’t have a lot of room for. The bacon in the shortbread was subtle leaving a hint of smokiness but not more. The creme brulee was rich, moist and needing a bit more brulee. Matched with cognac, I wish I had more room by dessert.
The last dish of the night were Celebratory Rice Cakes and Cookies, Magnolia Berry Tea.
So the verdict is that Chef Debbie Lee is certainly doing a good job creating dishes that embody traditional Korean cuisine but still are accessible to the American palate. Will Korean BBQ die hards choose Culver City over K-Town? I don’t know. We didn’t really have Korean BBQ. Will the 3 foot tall beer dispensers be a draw for the drinking crowd that doesn’t normally drink in Koreatown? Probably. Is Gyenari a good place for first time Korean food eaters. Yes.
You can follow Gyenari on Twitter to find out about their happy hour deals, events in the lounge and other happenings.