The wait had been interminable. But when it finally happened, a new chapter of my life had opened before me, unveiling a step closer to manhood.
You never forget your first time.
I remember the woman only vaguely. She was older than I, both seasoned and professional. When she sensed my awkward nervousness, she proceeded to take charge, first directing me to remove my shoes, then leading me to one of the four plush pillows on the floor. With her gentle encouragement, I managed to shake off my hesitation and sat down, cross-legged. The remaining three members of our party soon followed suit.
There we sat, staring across from one another at a squat, "bapsang" table that stood no higher than three feet.
Our first Korean meal was about to begin.
The event transpired nearly two decades ago at Riverside Korean in Covington, Kentucky. It opened our eyes to a new experience and made us feel both privileged and worldly as we enjoyed a great meal in a seemingly exotic setting.
The Korean restaurant scene in Cincinnati has evolved quite a bit over the ensuing years. Dishes like bibimbap and beef bulgogi can no longer be regarded as rare curiosities. Many competitors have since challenged Riverside's long-standing reign as the area's premier Korean restaurant, particularly Sung Korean Bistro, the downtown restaurant owned by chef Sung Jun Oh.
Sung's newest addition, Dolsot Bistro, opened late this summer in the Blue Ash area on Pfeiffer Rd, claiming the space Brown Dog Cafe had vacated after they moved further down the street.
Dolsot Bistro chiefly focuses on the sizzling hot stone bowl dishes for which it's named, with nine distinct dolsot dishes highlighting a menu that also features several grilled and sauteed meat entrees (including bulgogi), soups, stews, noodles and a litany of compelling appetizers.
My girlfriend and I sat down in a standard booth this time, our shoes intact on our feet. The restaurant was dimly lit and intimate. While our eyes initially gravitated toward especially curious fusion appetizers like the bulgogi burrito ($9), we ultimately opted for a more traditional mandu ($6), steamed vegetable dumplings filled with tofu, scallions, onion and cabbage and served with a soy-based dipping sauce.
The dumplings arrived artfully arranged on a plate in a flower-like configuration: doughy white petals of dumpling sporting an orange, shredded carrot pistil, highlighted by small tan dots of a thickly reduced, semi-sweet sauce. The hearty dumplings fooled me into believing I was eating a meat filling, a deep savoriness capped off by bright, herby notes. I could have eaten a dozen more.
Our dinner entrees included a traditional beef "bibimbab" (their spelling for bibimbap), with steamed rice, spinach, beef, bean sprouts, carrots, zucchini and radish topped with a sunny side up egg and mixed with a spicy gochujang sauce ($15), as well as a dolsot noodle bowl with thick, wheat udon noodles, mushrooms, zucchini, bell pepper, onion, carrot and toasted seaweed, topped with another sunny side up egg ($16).
Served just before the arrival of our entrees were the six traditional "banchan" side dishes: snackings of kimchi, shiitake mushrooms, pickled cucumbers, seaweed, potatoes and pickled radish. These are always a fun sampling of tasty options to be enjoyed before, during and after main courses.
Our waitress was quick to mix our bowls tableside, allowing most of the rice at the bottom to continue to caramelize so that it can be lovingly scraped up later. Sung Korean Bistro easily offers one of the better bibimbaps (-babs) in town, and the Dolsot Bistro incarnation is just as appealing. The bowls were ample and satisfying, with a freshness that left us feeling healthy and guiltless for having emptied them.
Dolsot Bistro may not have been the first, but it hearkened back to our past while making us appreciate the here and now. Was it good for you? Yes, yes it was.