Monday, November 29, 2010

San Dong House BBQ in San Francisco

Hand-Pulled Noodles Pounded to Perfection
3741 Geary Blvd. (at 2nd), San Francisco
Inner Richmond
PH: 415.668.5888
Open daily 11 a.m. to midnight (till 3 a.m. Friday, Saturday)
No reservations, cash only

The chilly weather always makes me go hunting for soup noodles. And I love all kinds, especially Asian noodles from Japanese ramen to Chinese won ton mein. The Northern Chinese are especially good with warming your bones by creating dishes with lots of spicy meat and comforting noodles that stick to your ribs.

My recent hunt brought me to the fairly new San Dong House on the busy Geary Boulevard strip. Away from the more crowded Clement Street nearby, San Dong looks like any non-descript ethnic restaurant with the basic awning and utilitarian wooden tables and chairs.

When I visited for lunch on a recent Saturday, the restaurant seemed nearly empty except for a family sitting at a round table near the back under the flat-screen TV. After checking the menu, I began hearing the thumping sound coming from the back and quickly took my camera to catch all the action.

The noodle chef had started his day’s assignment of making freshly pulled noodles. Like a pizzaiolo tossing pizza dough, the chef slung the noodle dough into long strings with each thump. In southern China, the noodle makers would transform the dough into hair-thin strings of mein, but for Northern Chinese cuisine, the noodles are a bit thicker, so maybe less work for them?

I sat down and out came a side dish of green onion pancakes ($3.99) that I ordered. I generally wouldn’t eat these pancakes because they can be oily when pan fried, but I always remember the intoxicating aroma I smelled as a child when we would visit a Northern Chinese restaurant and these freshly made pancakes were at the window.

This order, quite large with eight pieces, didn’t disappoint. The aroma was slightly sweet and pungent like the onions, and the pancake was thin and chewy with just the right bit of crisp on the edges. And they didn’t feel greasy or oily. I tried to eat as many as I could, but I had to save myself for my noodles.

I ordered the spicy Dan Dan Noodles ($6.99), and here’s where my lack of knowledge of Northern Chinese cuisine will show. This Sichuan specialty is quite spicy and made with bean sauce and chili, but when I previously ordered it at other restaurants it came out as a soup noodle dish. But at San Dong, it came out with no soup and was served lukewarm with a bean sauce and julienned cucumbers. The overall look of the dish reminded me more of Ja Jiang noodles.

I thought maybe the waitress heard me wrong (most of the servers speak Mandarin but also know English), but as I ate the noodles a customer walking by looked at my bowl of noodles and asked another server what I had ordered, and she said “dan dan mein.” So I guess I wasn’t wrong.

The hand-pulled noodles, my first time trying San Dong’s version, were amazing. They were just the right thickness and had a nice chewy bite. It reminded me of saimin from Hawaii but thicker. The dan dan sauce was pungent, with a smell that I usually would describe to others as something that’s “an acquired taste.” Still, the combination with the cucumbers was nice and it definitely was spicy. I took a picture of my empty bowl so you can see all the chili oil still evident at the bottom.

I returned last Friday night for dinner, and again the restaurant was nearly empty. I’m starting to think that noodles are more popular in the late evening, especially since San Dong is opened till 3 a.m. on the weekends. This time the weather was definitely chilly, so I knew I wanted soup noodles.

I ordered another traditional dish – the beef noodles soup (BTW pretty much all the 18 noodle bowls on the menu sell for $6.99). The bowl of noodles looked pretty standard when it arrived, but when I bit into the meat it was both tender and lean, with not too much fat. It had the familiar anise-laced flavor that was delicious and it was balanced with a very light broth.

The soup didn’t taste as much as beef stock as it did of mushroom, so in a way this seemed like a healthy version of beef noodles soup. The noodles, again, was just wonderful, with the same chewy texture and soft center like the first time I tasted it (that says a lot about consistency). Even during dinner, I could hear the noodle chef pounding away making more fresh noodles.

After I ate the whole bowl of beef noodles, my order of xiao lung bao came out. These Northern-style dumplings are known for their delicate skin with a bit of soup wrapped in with the filling.

I should explain that in the dumpling section of the menu, I couldn’t find a mention of xiao lung bao. And even though I don’t read Chinese, I do know the character for “lung” or dragon, so I tried to look for that and couldn’t find it. There were listings for pork and vegetable dumplings and lamb dumplings, but I didn’t know which one was the traditional xiao lung bao. So basically I just asked my waitress in Mandarin if they had them, and when she said yes, I asked for an order. (So if you’re not sure, just ask for them by name. It’s pronounced “shaow loong bow.”)

The waitress explained that the xiao lung bao takes about 15 minutes to make so that’s why it ended up coming after my beef noodles. But luckily she only ordered me a half order ($4.99), which came out to just six dumplings in a steamer – perfect for just myself and after eating a whole bowl of noodles.

The dumpling skin was thin but some parts seemed a bit thick, so it wasn’t as amazing as the hand-pulled noodles. But I still liked it because it was nicely wrapped unlike some restaurants that make their dumplings deformed. I appreciated San Dong’s nice form.

The filling had a nice bit of minced pork that was sitting in a pool of rich broth that had a rust color, giving it a real deep flavor. I enjoyed both the meat and the broth, which made these some of the better xiao lung bao I’ve had in the Bay Area.

San Dong has BBQ in its name because they have a section on meat skewers, but pretty much everyone goes there for the hand-pulled noodles. And why not when they’re so good? San Dong looks like it’s been in the neighborhood for years, but the fresh noodles say there’s a new kid in town.

Single guy rating: 3.5 stars (Comforting noodles)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

San Dong House B.B.Q  on Urbanspoon

More Northern cuisine:
Bund Shanghai: "Hearty Northern Chinese Cuisine Done Right"
Shan Dong: "What's All the Fuss Oakland Lunchers?"

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire

The holiday feel comes around soon after Thanksgiving (and oftentimes before), and the cold freezing weather in the Bay Area lately has really emphasized the point. But for me, it's not the glittering lights or Christmas tree lots that make me think of the holidays but the smell of roasting chestnuts.

You can find them being sold from a stand at Union Square in San Francisco, but I see them when I walk home from the Rockridge BART station in Oakland because that means I pass by Oliveto restaurant and its makeshift chestnut stand in the patio seating area of its cafe.

I love the smell of roasting chestnuts, and in cold weather its so nice to hold in your hands some freshly roasted chestnuts. Oliveto sells theirs in a paper cone for $3, which holds only six chestnuts. Kind of pricey, but a nice treat now and then. This particular weekend, the chestnuts were especially huge so they seemed well worth the price.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Simple Jook Demo

When I think of Thanksgiving leftovers, I automatically go to turkey jook. Pretty much every Chinese mom will be gathering the leftover turkey bones and meat and dumping them into a big pot of rice and water to create a bowl of jook. (OK, probably several bowls.)

I have friends who would go and order jook at restaurants. It's a very popular breakfast dish. But I rarely order jook because I can make a nice bowl by myself. Some people think it's so much work, but I made this video to pretty much shatter that myth. Sure, it takes some time to make jook because it's one of those slow-cooked one pot dishes. It takes between 1 hour to 1.5 hours to make a small pot of jook, but the actual technique is super easy.

In this video, I'm using leftover roasted duck that I had for dinner one night from Chinatown. I used the hard-to-eat meat/bones for jook because the slow cooking helps the hard to get to meat fall off the bones. The recipe is pretty much easy to get from the video, but you can also follow a previous jook post I did awhile back. But whatever you do, save those turkey bones for your morning after jook! Enjoy!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Plum in Oakland’s Uptown

Patterson Puts His Mark Across the Bay
2214 Broadway (at 22nd St.), Oakland
PH: 510.444.7586
Open daily, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Reservations, major credit cards accepted
(16% service charge automatically added to bill)

Chef Daniel Patterson is really turning out to be a big-time restaurateur. Already established with his fine-dining Coi in San Francisco, he’s opened the casual Il Cane Rosso in the Ferry Building and plans a restaurant called Bracina as part of the revitalization of Oakland’s Jack London Square.

But his most recent restaurant opening takes him to Oakland’s Uptown, where he’s taken over the space of a Louisiana-style fried chicken joint and opened a stylish and cozy neighborhood restaurant called Plum.

I work in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood, so having a restaurant by someone of Patterson’s caliber nearby was something I eagerly anticipated. The bus I catch home from work passes the restaurant, and every day I watched as the restaurant was gutted, then slowly renovated and redecorated until the lights went on three months ago and diners came calling.

I visited for dinner last week with my dining partner Foodhoe, who pens the adventurous and photolicious Foodhoe’s Foraging. I arrived early and was offered either a seat at the long 11-seat counter (facing the open kitchen) or one of the shared tables in the front. (The wooden tables and benches create a sophisticated park picnic feel, and I couldn’t keep my hands from rubbing along the smooth wood surface.)

As you can tell from my description of the tables, I chose to sit at one of the communal tables instead of the counter. The restaurant had a festive feel with the walls covered by plum photographs in grids and dangling lights that felt like they were strung up at someone’s backyard party.

When Foodhoe arrived, we dived into the menu, which reflected a seasonal spin that seemed to put a heavy emphasis on vegetables. Chef Patterson isn’t in charge of the kitchen (although there were reports of his sighting behind the stove during the early weeks of the opening) and supposedly his partner from Il Cane, Chef Lauren Kiino, served as the opening chef. But later news reported that former Aqua chef de cuisine Ron Boyd would be supervising the kitchen. I’m sure all these chefs have influenced Plum’s kitchen in these early weeks.

After ordering a glass of wine, Foodhoe ordered from the snack section to get the potato chicharrones ($4). Traditionally made from pork rind, this faux chicharrones came out looking like an interesting food sculpture.

Of course, I only tried just one piece because I don’t like to eat deep-fried foods, and I wasn’t tempted to eat more. Foodhoe and I agreed that while the pepper and lime spice sprinkled on the chicharrones was a perfect seasoning, the texture seemed a bit off, almost stale.

Heading into our meal, we started with artichoke terrine ($10), which is a cold dish made of layers, this time of thinly sliced artichokes that had been cooked tender and then beautifully created into this layered dish. The artichoke pieces were interspersed with Andante cheese (it was soft like goat cheese) and sat on a black olive tapenade. Even though this dish was a small portion, I enjoyed the complexity and subtle flavors.

Next came the chicory salad ($9), which I had heard some good things about. The crunchy salad of mixed chicory greens (we had to ask the server to identify the three types of chicory used, which included escarole and radicchio), pomegranate and pears were held nicely together with a somewhat creamy date-yogurt vinaigrette that was slightly sweet. I found the sweetness a nice change from the typical tart vinaigrette, but I think Foodhoe thought it was too sweet because she let me eat most of the salad.

Another dish that’s been getting some buzz in the blogosphere is the olive oil braised cauliflower ($12) with bulghur, almonds and dandelion salsa. The plate of cauliflower looked rich and roasted, and I enjoyed the interesting flavors. But I wished the cauliflower wasn’t cooked so soft.

For the larger dishes, we ordered first the Manila clams grilled on the plancha ($17). This was a dish that I totally got wrong. When I saw plancha, I thought the clams would come sizzling on a plancha, a type of Spanish metal plate. But instead, the clams came in a bowl mixed with escarole, so it ended up looking like a salad. I did like the slight heat in the flavor of the clams, but all the greens couldn’t keep me from thinking we were still eating a salad.

But while the clams were a low, a high was the beef cheek and oxtail burger ($15). This amazing burger had a unique texture that was slightly rich and flakey, darkened by the cooked cheeks and oxtail meat. It wasn’t the typical bloody hamburger, but this unique combination created a different flavor that was surprising and so satisfying. It came with some pickles and horseradish, which helped to cut into the richness, and was accompanied by a tiny bunch of simply dressed greens. (Plum plans to open for lunch in the future, and I really hope they offer this burger.)

We ended our dinner with the talked-about roasted white chocolate parfait ($9), which was a tiny slice of creamy parfait that had a texture similar to cheesecake but Foodhoe kept saying it was "like BUD-dha" (it actually reminds me of a parfait I had at Commis, another stellar Oakland restaurant). It was served with huckleberries, which seems to be the season’s in fruit at restaurants in the Bay Area. The dessert was enjoyable, and I especially like the flakey crumbly crust.

A note about the service: everyone was friendly, professional, and welcoming. Although Foodhoe and I thought it was odd that the waiter who took our orders and helped us at the beginning of our meal never visited us at the end. It felt like we were handed over to another server. I did appreciate how they clearly told us that there’s a 16 percent service charged automatically added to the bill so you don’ t have to worry about figuring out the tip. (Some restaurants add an automatic gratuity on large groups, but sometimes forget to tell you so I appreciate how Plum is diligent about telling guests upfront.)

The food at Plum is a mix bag of amazing (artichoke terrine, beef cheek/oxtail burger) to ordinary (chicory salad), but the effort is always appreciated, especially in the emerging dining experience of Uptown. Patterson, in his ever-expanding mode, also plans to takeover the space next door to Plum (formerly home for Franklin Square Wine Bar) to create a bar experience to complement Plum. He wants Plum to be a neighborhood restaurant, and I think he’s done just that while still throwing in a few culinary surprises.

You can read Foodhoe's take on our meal on her post here. Turns out she thought the decor was more scary than I thought.

Single guy rating: 3.75 stars (A few nice surprises)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Plum on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Food Paparazzi

Iron Chef and Food Network Star Bobby Flay was in town promoting his new book based on another one of his popular shows, "Throwdown," and on Sunday he was at the flagship Williams-Sonoma store at Union Square in San Francisco signing books. (And according to Twitter he also stopped by Tartine Bakery.)

The signing was scheduled for noon and I got there early at 11 a.m. thinking I could get near the front. But there were 100-plus people ahead of me. That was fine, because Chef Flay got there early (a first I think for cookbook author signings) and he graciously started signing books around 11:30 a.m. I got my book signed and out of there by 12:15 p.m.

I've watched Flay from his early days at the Food Network and I think he's just amazing with his food. And he's pretty much everywhere. Along with "Iron Chef America" and "Throwdown with Bobby Flay," he also stars in "The Next Food Network Star," "Boy Meets Grill" and "Grill it! With Bobby Flay."

I'm actually a big fan of "Throwdown." In the show, Flay travels to various cities to challenge regular people in cooking their specialties. I like watching the people get surprised when Flay shows up to challenge them, and he always looks like he's having a lot of fun. The cookbook includes recipes from challenges from seasons' past, and photos of previous Throwdown competitors. It's part cookbook and part fan book of the show.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Exploring Fort Mason's Farmers' Market

Last weekend when I was gorging on chocolates at Fort Mason, I ran into its weekly farmers' market in the parking area. I never realized they had a farmers market, but it shouldn't be a surprise since we live in the Bay Area where there's a new farmers' market in virtually every neighborhood these days.

The Fort Mason market happens every Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It launched during the summer and is now year round, so you can visit it any time you like during the year. (If the weather's drying out Sunday, you can head out and stock up for your Thanksgiving dinner with a lot of fall fruits and vegetables and apples, pears, persimmons, beets and all sorts of squash.)

The market was especially crowded when I was there last week, and it looked like a hearty crowd despite being smaller than most other markets around town. There were some regular market sellers like Scream Sorbet and Roli Roti, but I also noticed some different stands unique to this market.

It's kind of out of the way for me, but was totally convenient when I was at Fort Mason for an event. It's seems perfect for the Marina crowd, as can be seen by the cyclists and joggers stopping by to check out the goods. They probably can grow with a few more prepared foods vendors, but it's definitely a nice emerging market.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Singular Thanksgiving: Stuffed Turkey Breast Recipe

So everyone’s probably thinking about Thanksgiving dinner next week – what to eat, or what to make.

Last year, I made Thanksgiving dinner (and live blogged about it) at my studio apartment for my nephew and his girlfriend. But this year, it’s back to the Single Guy Thanksgiving, and like most years I’m probably just going to make a roast chicken and maybe pumpkin pie.

And there may be a few of you out there like me who’s an orphan this Thanksgiving, far from home and reluctant to accept the various invitations from friends to join their big family gatherings. So I figured I’d come up with the following recipe for a simple Thanksgiving dinner for one.

Stuffed turkey breast seems to be making a comeback this Thanksgiving. And why not? You get your turkey and stuffing all in one and you don’t have to spend hours cooking since turkey breast cooks pretty fast. My basic version uses the same pot used to bake the turkey breast to also make a sauce or gravy for the final dish.

You can buy the boneless turkey breast roasts if you can find them at the grocery store, or you can do what I ended up doing, which was buy a turkey breast and then deboned it, and then trying to butterfly it to make it an even layer that can be tied up into a roll.

The only thing about this recipe is that you end up with lots of stuffing. But shouldn’t we all be stuffed at Thanksgiving? Enjoy!

Sweet Pork Sausage Stuffing
Copyright 2010 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 Sweet Italian pork sausage, casing removed, crumbled
2 celery stalks, finely diced
2 carrots, finely diced
1 shallot, finely diced
1 T fresh sage, minced
1 T fresh thyme, minced
1/2 cup chicken broth
3 cups bread crumb cubes, unseasoned
1 T vegetable oil
1 T butter

In a pot, warm the oil over medium heat and then add the shallots and cook to soften, about 2 to 3 minutes. Then add the celery and carrots and continue to cook for another 3 minutes, adding a pinch of salt.

When the vegetables have softened a bit, add the sausage and brown, breaking it apart as you cook. Then add chicken broth and bring to boil.

Remove from heat and add bread crumbs, herbs and butter, then season with salt to taste. Mix thoroughly and cover pot and set aside.

Makes six servings

Stuffed Turkey Breast
Copyright 2010 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1 turkey breast, boneless (about 1.5-2 lbs.)
Sausage stuffing
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Butterfly turkey breast so that it’s evenly flat. Season with salt and pepper on both sides, then lay on flat surface. Spoon a layer of stuffing on top of the turkey breast (don’t overdo it because you need room to roll). Then roll the turkey breast and tie up your breast into a log using cooking twine.

In a dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat and then add the turkey breast, browning all sides, especially the skin portions. Cover dutch oven and then place in oven and cook for 30 minutes. Then remove cover and cook for another 15 to 20 minutes (depending on thickness of breast meat) or until the turkey registers 165 degrees when using a meat thermometer. (Be sure to stick the meat portion and not into the stuffing in the center.)

When cooked, remove turkey breast from the dutch oven and let it rests before removing twine and slicing about inch thick.

Makes 2 to 3 servings

Brown gravy
Copyright 2010 by Cooking With The Single Guy

1/4 cup Marsala wine
1 cup chicken broth
2 T flour
1 T butter
salt and peper to taste

Using the same dutch oven that you cooked your turkey breast in, place on stovetop on medium heat and add flour and cook for about 30 seconds. Then add Marsala wine, using a wooden spoon to scrape off all the nice burnt bits at the bottom of the pan, then add broth and stir until thicken. Add butter then season with salt and pepper to taste.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Plate up your turkey breast, drizzle some of the gravy and garnish with cranberry sauce and serve with mashed potatoes and cooked greens like string beans.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

San Francisco Fall Luxury Chocolate Salon 2010

TasteTV puts on a highly successful chocolate salon at San Francisco's Fort Mason every spring. It grew a few years ago from a tiny conference room near the entrance of Fort Mason to the huge pavilion space.

Now TasteTV has created a fall version of the popular chocolate salon, and they returned to where it all started in the little conference room at Fort Mason. I attended the first San Francisco Fall Luxury Chocolate Salon on Sunday as a guest because I was one of several judges on the tasting panel.

The challenge with the earlier chocolate salons was the crazy crowds in the tiny space, which is why they've grown to the larger pavilion space. To avoid that problem with the launch of their fall salon, tickets were limited and were only available in advance online. They also restricted the number of vendors, leaving the center of the room open to allow visitors hopped up on sugar to mingle in the center.

It was my first time on the tasting panel, and all I basically had to do was attend the event, taste the chocolates, and then later vote on my favorites in some 20 categories. How hard could that be? It actually turned out to be very very hard.

In the past when I attended events on my own, I would just taste chocolates that looked interesting. But as a judge, I felt it was only fair that I tried every chocolate from every vendor. Just one hour into the event, I was on a sugar high and could barely get past half the vendors. Worst of all, I had a hard time comparing some of the chocolate makers because they were quite similar, so that meant I had to go back and tried some of them again just to be sure.

Let me just say that I worked really hard. Really hard.

The full listing of chocolate winners can be found here, and I have to say I'm a bit surprised by some of the gold winners, especially some repeat winners when I thought there were several other good choices. But I'm just one newbie judge. Here's a look at some of the interesting chocolates I tried. Not all of these are my favorites, just what were unusual or different.

I just had to shoot this baseball chocolate from Plumeria Flours. This chocolate maker creates chocolate covered Oreo cookies and then decorate them in interesting designs, like the one above that reminds me of the WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS. (Sorry, but when you're champions you're allowed to type it in uppercase for the entire year.)

This chocolate maker had some really interesting flavored truffles, such as this root beer float truffle. I thought it might be really interesting and remind me of my childhood or something, but instead it was just really sweet.

Since it was the fall, there were actually several chocolate makers who used pumpkin spice flavors. This one was from Coco Delice Fine Chocolates, which has its factory in Emeryville. (I actually liked its newest product, a Sonoma Brut champagne truffle. You can't get the bubbly from champagne, but you could definitely get the wine undertones. A lot of other people tried a champagne flavor truffle and the flavor wasn't as distinct.)

What really saved me from the endless chocolate tasting was this sorbet from Garden Creamery of Novato. They were passing out scoops of chocolate and raspberry sorbets, a perfect combination. I loved the texture, which was almost creamy like gelato.

This was a vodka blueberry chocolate from Saratoga Chocolates. The blueberries were whole fresh blueberries, but I didn't get much of the vodka taste. (Hey, I just realized that I tried a lot of the liquor-based chocolates. Now you know what I lean toward.)

Several chocolate makers have been to these chocolate salons before, but this was a new one I haven't seen before. It's called Au Coeur Des Chocolate and the chocolate maker had some really crazy flavors, like the above caramelized corn nut. I actually liked it, and thought it was really innovative. The corn nut gave the chocolate a nice crunchy texture, but not overly so.

Here are some chocolates from Socolo Chocolatier. They have some of my favorite truffles. In fact, I voted for them in the categories of "Most delicious ingredient combinations" (they had unusual flavors that tasted very balanced), "most attractive designs" (just look how pretty they are), and "Best gift set." (Update: Socolo did win for "Most delicious ingredient combinations" and I so agree.)

I'm sure this chocolate event will grow in popularity as well, just like its older sister event in the spring. One can never get enough of chocolates (unless you're a judge), so maybe this may be a quarterly event.

Monday, November 15, 2010

To Hyang in San Francisco

Discovering Home-style Korean Food
3815 Geary Blvd. (at 2nd), San Francisco
Inner Richmond
PH: 415.668.8186
Open Tue.–Sun., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Reservations for large parties, major credit cards accepted

There are some cuisines that I enjoy but am still learning more about. Korean is one of them. My knowledge of Korean food is limited to BBQ chicken and bibimbap (which, BTW, is one of my favorite things to say, next to baba ganoush).

So in trying to expand my palate for Korean food, I ventured to a small restaurant on Geary Boulevard called To Hyang. Despite having a non-descript entrance, this is a place that has been written up a bit by local reviewers.

Opened about two years ago, To Hyang is a family restaurant headed by Hwa-Soon Im, who does all the cooking. Her daughter works the front and her grandchildren, well, they’re just every where. The tiny spot looks like a hole-in-the-wall that was pretty quiet on the weeknight that I visited (it’s also a bit stuffy on this unseasonably warm San Francisco night).

Joining me was my friend Ken, who was willing to give Korean food a try. We started the night with a carafe of soju, which is a Korean rice wine that Im infuses with various flavors such as fig and cucumber. We decided to try one made with quince because it sounded perfect for fall.

Side note: To Hyang also serves a roasted barley tea, which I’ve never tried before. Since I was mostly drinking the soju, I didn’t taste the tea until near the end of the meal. It was a bitter, dark tea that I didn’t really enjoy.

For our food, we looked over the extensive menu, which had a variety of meat and fish dishes. After ordering three entrees to share, the traditional starter plates known as panchan came to our table. The seven tiny plates are complimentary, and gave us something to munch on as we drank the soju.

Most of the panchan were pickled or preserved vegetables, including the ubiquitous kim chi. Ken and I enjoyed most of them, even those that we couldn’t identify.

Then our main dishes arrived, starting with the Ojinguh Muchim, or squid with vegetables in a tangy spicy sauce ($12.99). The dish was listed on the menu as one that’s served cold, which I thought would be good since it was a warm night outside. But the dish was actually still warm, but it was still good with lots of tender squid pieces and a sweet and spicy sauce that was on the mild side.

Ken is a vegetarian who also eats seafood, so we also ordered the Gahjaemi Chorim, or whole flounder with vegetables and tofu ($15.99). We didn’t notice that the menu said it was served in a tangy spicy sauce, which, you guessed it, was pretty much the same sweet spicy sauce that came with the squid. The platter was huge with the flounder served on the bone, but the meat easily came off the bone. The tofu was OK but I felt the vegetables were a bit overcooked.

Our last dish was actually more for me since Ken doesn’t eat meat. I wanted to try one of Im’s specialties and I’ve read this is either the pork belly salad or the oxtail stew. Since I didn’t feel up for the fattiness of pork belly, I ordered the oxtail stew or So Kori Chim ($18.99).

This Korean braised oxtail stew is made in a sweet pickled sauce that reminded me a lot of the Chinese’s pickled pig’s feet dish. Both dishes are served with a boiled egg, but the So Kori Chim gets a boost of sweetness from the dates added to the braising liquid. The stew also included big chunks of carrots and daikon, which were cooked tender.

I enjoyed the tender meat of the oxtail, which easily fell off the bone. But it’s not a dish that you can eat a lot of just because after awhile the sweetness will be too much, IMHO.

These Korean dishes were definitely different than what I’d normally order, so it was an interesting experience and the style of the preparation from Im seemed like you were visiting a friend’s home for dinner. There’s plenty of food and the presentation isn’t pretentious at all.

To Hyang offers up some decent Korean food with nice flavors and friendly service, but I don’t know if the food necessarily excited me. I think maybe more spiciness and less sugar might give the food more balance. But To Hyang is a nice first step in my introduction to Korean cuisine.

Single guy rating: 2.75 stars (Comfort food)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

To Hyang on Urbanspoon