Elements of the Korean aesthetic have been surfacing in dining contexts all over the nation since David Chang began working marinated barbecue and kimchi into the menus of his chowhound-destination Momofuku restaurants in New York City. Locally, Tory Miller has been experimenting with more Korean flavors via Sujeo's pan-Asian comfort food menu.
New Seoul isn't nearly so trendy, instead serving traditional Korean meals that you might get on the other side of the world.
The straight line has proven to be a tougher sell. New Seoul quietly served our city for decades on University Avenue without making many headlines as the most traditional Korean restaurant in a city with few other options. This cuisine, sometimes strange to Midwesterners, is rewarding, with its emphasis on fish sauce, fermented vegetables, ginger, spicy chilies, salted shrimp, soy bean paste and anchovy extract.
New Seoul recently relocated to the far west side in an important upgrade that bodes well for the Korean cause.
The old spot was worn down after many years of service. This new space seats about 40, is freshly scrubbed and cheerful. It's still casual, with wooden chopsticks on simple tables, but the greater openness in the space fosters friendliness. The clientele skews heavily Korean, and during one meal it was the only language I heard anyone but me speak -- always a good sign. There's only a single front-of-the-house worker handling tables plus a steady stream of take-out, and that man is working hard.
Beef bibimbap is the big seller at lunch. Radish, bean sprouts, shredded carrots and spinach are served with marinated beef and topped with a lightly crisped fried egg. This dish may be ordered in a sizzling hot bowl (as "rock cooker bibimbap," for a small extra charge) that continues to cook the contents as the diner breaks the egg and stirs in the kimchi and the rice. It's definitely worth the upgrade.
Tukbokgi is an appetizer often sold by street vendors. The portion here is meal-sized; triangular fried fish cakes and rice cake sticks are tossed with white onions, scallions and sesame seeds over a slow-burning sweet and spicy red pepper-based sauce that eventually kicks in hard enough to make your eyes water. Feel the long fuse of that red pepper burn.
Koreans include a soup spoon with the standard table setting; soup is served at nearly every meal. Ordering two bowls of the glass potato noodle soup with red cabbage and beef may be a good move on a date; it's so good you might otherwise be fighting over it. A riskier maneuver would be to share a big bowl of the squid, octopus, mussel, clam, shrimp and egg bean paste stew. Because you are definitely going to be fighting over that.
No one else in town prepares the labor-intensive Korean chicken and ginger soup, sam gae tang, like New Seoul. Adhering to this ancient recipe means gutting, then stuffing, a whole spring chicken with ginseng, dates and sweet sticky rice, then binding it up again and immersing the bird in broth with lots of garlic. The bubbling hot soup is served, bones and all, in a large bowl. Sharing is a must on this one, as is seasoning the soup to taste with add-ons from the accompanying ramekin of white sesame seeds, salt and black pepper.
For carnivores, it's easy to like the delicately seasoned beef bulgogi, thinly sliced strips of meat, marinated and char-grilled, that arrive on a bed of crunchy lettuce for wrapping. Kimchi, miso soup and shredded daikon with the odd carrot are served on the side (as with many dishes here). The kimchi, spicy fermented napa cabbage with kochukaru (red pepper powder), is an essential counterweight to the beef and rice. Beef galbi -- beef marinated with sugar, soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, fruit juice and sake -- is served on the bone on a bed of romaine. The meat isn't as tender as it should be, but it's primally satisfying to bite into.
Asia is slowly reaching Madison. Japanese cuisine, or at least sushi, is now commonplace here, and we have Vietnamese and Laotian staples. We're awash in Chinese-American food. But traditional Korean food remains exotic to many.
This is a vibrant cuisine with bold flavors and surprising taste combinations. It is becoming more familiar in a fusion context, but it's cool to learn from tradition. New Seoul captures the old soul of this sublime cuisine.