Sung Korean Bistro & Lounge
700 Elm St
I’m embarrassed to admit that until a few weeks ago I’d never before tried Korean cuisine. I had assumed – wrongly – that there wouldn’t be a great deal of vegetarian options available. I should have known a country with such a rich Buddhist heritage wouldn’t steer me wrong, and a quick look at Sung Korean Bistro’s online menu tempted me enough to visit. My dining companion was also new to Korean cuisine, but being the adventurous sort was quite eager to give it a go.
The restaurant serves authentic but approachable Korean fare in a chic, modernist setting. I’ve heard that it gets uncomfortably crowded there some evenings, but on the afternoon we visited it was pleasantly calm; an oasis of feng shui serenity. My only quibble with the décor is that the groovy paper lanterns hang low enough that I saw three people bump their heads on them. I’m short enough not to have to worry about such things, but anyone over 5’7" should beware.
Korean food is surprisingly healthy, with most dishes being steamed, broiled or pan/stir-fried rather than deep-fried, and there is a wide assortment of fermented foods, vegetables, rice and grains. I noted a couple of vegetarian appetizers on the menu: Goonmandu (pan fried dumplings stuffed with tofu, scallions, onion and cabbage); Yangnyum Dubu (pan-fried soft tofu topped with toasted seaweed, onion, egg and red pepper mixed with soy sauce, vinegar and sesame oil); and Gimbab (rice roll with pickled radish, egg, and cucumber). I wanted to try the vegetarian gimbab (there is also a version with crab meat and beef) but the server informed me that although it is listed on the lunch menu, it was only available during dinner service.
Shrugging it off, we decided to forego an appetizer and dive straight into the lunch entrées. There are three vegetarian options available on the lunch menu: Bibimbap (watercress, bean sprouts, carrot, radish, lettuce and pan fried egg over rice with tofu); Stone Bowl Bibimbap, which is similar to the regular bibimbap but served in a piping hot stone bowl, which cooks the contents while you stir; and a Lunch Tray Special of yangnyum dubu served with three sides, two pan-fried dumplings and two pieces of gimbab and rice. Because vegetarian gimbab was unavailable for lunch, the server told me I could opt for extra dumplings if I wanted to order the Lunch Tray Special.
My dining companion chose a non-veggie option from the Lunch Tray Specials list, which, when it arrived at the table reminded me somewhat of a Japanese bento box. When I lived in Japan I used to dread the bento boxes as much as my Japanese friends looked forward to them, because the boxes usually housed an assortment of traditional foods that I wasn’t crazy about (raw octopus tentacles, for example) but knew I had to eat so as not to offend my hosts. The Lunch Tray Special, like a bento box, is a compartmentalized lacquered tray which houses each item individually and has a shallow well in the center for the sauce.
Sung’s Lunch Tray Specials are very tame by comparison, and my companion was very pleased with the Doeji Bulgogi (grilled, marinated spicy pork) he had ordered.
Instead of ordering the vegetarian Lunch Tray Special I chose the Stone Bowl Bibimbap, and was a little disappointed. When it was brought to the table – piping hot and sizzling – the server offered to stir the contents to get it cooking properly, but he refused to add any of the hot chili paste that accompanies the dish, warning me that it was "incredibly spicy" and that I should be very careful when adding it to the dish.
I happen to like spicy dishes – the hotter the better actually – and I found the dish to be too bland. Adding bits of the chili paste to the dish after it had cooked gave it a patchy heat rather than a nice evenly spiced taste, and I made a mental note to add the paste at the beginning next time. What I did like about the dish was the way the hot bowl cooked the rice crispy and golden, which added an interesting texture to the meal. It also made eating with chopsticks a breeze, as everything held together really well.
Our meal was accompanied by a trio of tiny side dishes; a tasty daikon radish salad, a cucumber salad with a kick, and a fiery spiced dried radish salad, from which my friend shied away and I ate with gusto. It provided the heat that the bibimbap lacked. The trio of sides changes daily, as evidenced on my second visit, when the fiery dried radish salad was replaced by a moderately spiced kimchee.
Because I felt that it wasn’t representative of how the meal should taste, when I revisited the restaurant a few days ago I again tried the Stone Bowl Bibimbap, this time stressing to the server that I like (and can handle) spicy foods, and instructed her to dump all the chili paste into the dish. She still erred on the side of caution, however, and only added half the saucer of chili paste. She probably figured it was better to be safe than sorry. It made a world of difference from my previous visit and I was pleased with the results, but next time I think I will opt to stir it myself so that I can add ALL the chili paste.