When thinking of barbecue, what most often comes to mind is a distinctly American feast of smoky grilled meat, baked beans and coleslaw, served up with a Southern attitude and perhaps a cold Budweiser.
Korean barbecue also centers on grilled meat, but then veers into exotic culinary territory with side dishes and customs that may be unfamiliar, but well worth trying. Perhaps the best place in Bergen to experience this eating adventure is Dong Bang Grill.
The restaurant is housed in a former hibachi steak house, a Japanese-style building with a river stone entranceway and a plant-filled balcony surrounding the second-floor dining room. The simple room?s unique feature is stainless steel hoods on the ceiling ? there to whisk away smoke from the cooking that goes on in the center of each polished, dark-wood table.
Dong Bang Grill?s clientele is largely Korean, but newcomers are warmly welcomed, and the congenial owner, John Kim, is delighted to explain the large menu. He will most likely suggest yang-nyum gal-bi ? grilled boneless short ribs marinated in a soy-based sauce. The quality of the marinade is significant; Dong Bang?s chef, who came from Kim?s original restaurant in Korea, created this one.
Before the meat arrives, the waitress brings a variety of small plates, or banchan. The selection always features kimchi ? slightly spicy, pickled cabbage ? and might also include bean sprouts, marinated tofu, finely shredded radish and other vegetables, both pickled and raw. These light and flavorful offerings serve both as an appetizer and as accompaniment to the barbecue, and are replenished as the dishes are emptied.
Other good preludes to the main event are naeng myun, thin buckwheat noodles, vegetables, sliced beef and hard-boiled egg in a tangy, icy-cold broth; jap chae, a very satisfying dish of clear cellophane noodles stir-fried with beef, vegetables and lots of black pepper; hae mool pajun, egg-y, crisply fried pancake studded with seafood and scallions, and roast pyun chae, thin slices of smoked sirloin, which the waitress will deftly roll with chopsticks into little bundles with radish sprouts and onion.
As the gas fire is lit to heat the cooking grate for the barbecue, piping-hot cast-iron pots, each containing a steamed egg, will appear at the table. This soft and pleasant treat, which is the only dish served with a spoon, seemed to me to serve almost as a palate cleanser before the serious eating began.
The meat of the short ribs, which the waitress separates from the bone with large scissors, is placed directly on a wire grate above the cooking flame. To make sure it is done properly, it is best to let her do the work. When she delivers the finished slices to your plate, the correct technique is to wrap it in a lettuce leaf with sliced raw garlic, jalapeno peppers and ssamjang, a pungent, thick sauce made from fermented bean curd and red pepper paste. The combination is addictive, but packs a punch ? so either the peppers or the garlic can be eliminated for a milder version.
Like its American cousin, the heat and intense flavors of Korean barbecue are best matched with cold beer. The restaurant offers several, but OB, a light and refreshing lager, is an easy choice. The soju, the Korean version of sake, which is less sweet and served chilled, is also enjoyable. Either choice adds further depth to the adventure at Dong Bang Grill.