In the decade I've worked downtown, one thing has left me mystified: how can so many restaurants in the heart of the business center do so poorly while those further up the street in Over-the-Rhine flourish? Case in point: 628 Vine St. seems a perfect, well-trafficked spot, and yet so many restaurants have come and gone there over the years.
Back in 2007, it was a 50s diner with great Chicago dogs and gravy fries called Dink's. It was a Balboa's Philly Cheesesteaks for a short while; then a Mediterranean restaurant called Turquoise, founded by the same family who'd brought us Cafe Istanbul in Newport. The name soon changed to Istanbul Cafe, which managed a five-year stint. Now the spot is home to Haru, open since July. Haru assumes the mantle of premier downtown Korean left by yet another recently fallen eatery, Sung Korean Bistro.
We stopped by for dinner after perusing what appears to be one of the most diverse, yet familiar, menus in town. A lunch menu is also available at reasonable prices. There are a number of dishes listed here we've not seen in other area Korean restaurants beyond Korea House in Mason/Symmes Township. That's no coincidence, as Haru's owner and chef, Igor Kuan, once worked there. So if you've eaten at either 3501 Seoul or Haru, you can thank Korea House, because both have their roots in the Mason restaurant. Haru's menu highlights all the classic Korean hits, like various bulgogi and bibimbaps, noodle dishes and large soup (Guk) and stew (Chigae) entrees, but there are notably more obscure ones, like their monk fish entrees and vegetarian offerings, that should compel some of the more discriminating Korean aficionados.
Off Haru's drink menu, I ordered a traditional Korean punch called Sujung Gwa ($3). This reddish-hued drink is sweet and spicy with assertive hits of cinnamon and ginger, sprinkled with a few pine nuts. It's listed in the dessert menu, but worked great ordered along side my entree, the Mae Woon Tofu Bokgum ($15.99), a tofu stir-fry with zucchini, cabbage, onions, broccoli, mushrooms and carrots, all lightly dressed in a sweet and spicy chili sauce.
My girlfriend chose a cold buckwheat noodle dish called Mui Neng Myun ($13.99). The entree includes sliced beef, Asian pear, cucumber and radish in a mild broth.
All entrees come with six of the traditional Korean side dishes called Banchan, which included kimchi, pickled radish, a cole slaw-like concoction, fish cake strips, pickled carrots and pickled eggplant.
My Mae Woon Tofu stir-fry was easily one of the best Korean meals I'd ever had. I absolutely loved this tofu dish. I'm not a fan of crispy or fried tofu --I typically get it steamed because I find the texture of fried tofu disconcerting. This was a notable exception. The unusually large cube shape and the light outer crispiness of this tofu made for a superbly pleasing textural experience. The sauce was pleasantly spicy and savory, lightly applied without the greasiness one might expect from the dish. All of the vegetables, particularly the broccoli, exhibited such a toasty stir-fried char that it was hard not to swoon over the flavor. I was simply thrown off guard by how much I enjoyed this entree. It also came with a side of purple rice, which was a nice touch, adding a pleasing nutty element to the dish.
My girlfriend's buckwheat noodles were long, thin and tightly bundled such that it came with a pair of scissors for the diner to cut at leisure. The cold aspect of the dish was a bit jarring to me, but she very much enjoyed it and the mildly spiced sauce lent cool, refreshing notes on a hot summer day.
Our first impressions of Haru were universally positive. Of all the Asian restaurants in town influenced by Korea House, we easily found Haru to be the best iteration. In fact, we thought it was better than Korea House itself. Once again, downtown Cincinnati has a Korean restaurant it can be proud of.