Korean in Orlando

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    Like feasting on the diverse array of dishes at a tapas joint, dining at a Korean restaurant can also provide a motley mishmash catering to palates just as varied, be they pedestrian, exploratory or anything in between. In fact, there's arguably no other cuisine that warrants enjoyment with a large group of people more than Seoul food.

    Unfortunately, failing to remember to invite more than one guest to a Korean restaurant is a common oversight of mine ' an omission magnified when the septet of plates known as panchan is presented. The pre-meal snackables-cum-side items comprise the gamut of flavors ' salty and sweet; tangy and spicy; sour and bitter ' and gauging the reaction of fellow diners can liven up the affair, especially when the exotic plates arrive unordered and unannounced. Guests might wince after a bite of pickled radish; their lips may curl after a sampling of fish-pancake slivers; and tongues will burn after tearing into tangles of fiery kimchi. That's not to say such facial expressions and oral sensations are lost in smaller numbers; they're not, but at a Korean restaurant, 'the more, the merrierâ?� rings true.

    At Maitland's Seoul Gardens, the real fun lies beyond the DIY grilling tables, which many diners seem never to move past. Take the reasonably priced won tang soup ($2.99) ' the broth is murky enough to scare off flies, but treading below the surface are hefty dumplings filled with superbly seasoned beef. My ordering the Frisbee-sized pajun ($12.99), a buttery pancake generously stuffed with pepper-blasted kimchi and scallions, elicited an appearance by owner Chong Men Yun, an animated man who, prior to Seoul Gardens, ran Korea House and Korea Garden in Longwood. The self-described 'kimchi king of Orlandoâ?� proudly proclaims he introduced the redolent condiment to the city, and given the pancake's savory makeup, I was in no position to argue. Kim bap ($4.50), seaweed rolls stuffed with beef, carrots, radish and egg, was a perfectly satisfactory, if somewhat ordinary, starter.

    Forgoing bulgogi, the Korean national dish, turned out to be a wise decision, thanks to the sundubu jigae ($11.99). Blending clams, potatoes, vegetables and luxuriously soft tofu in a bubbling, nostril-flaring, blood-red fish broth, the soupy stew will certainly do its part to reduce any cold symptoms you might be suffering. My only complaint is that there was too much tofu in the dish, which caused a bit of soy disintegration. The soup is served with a bowl of sticky white rice, but if you're the sort that doesn't mind a little crunch in your grains, the bibimbap ($12.99) is as good a rice dish you'll ever have. It comes sizzling in a broad stone bowl brimming with beef bits, zucchini, bean sprouts, spinach, seaweed and cucumber, crowned with a fried egg. Our accommodating waiter was happy to liberally squeeze the blistering sauce known as kochujang into the mix before tossing and stirring the ingredients tableside. Just be sure to scoop up the bottom layer of rice to get a modest crunch with every bite.

    The interior, with its orchids (available for sale), is tastefully appointed and, unlike the food, won't overload your senses ' though the dearth of patrons may have contributed to that impression. The need to bellow 'Yuh-gi-yo! `Over here!`â?� never arose ' a slight head movement was enough to draw the waiter's attention, as was the case when I humbly requested a second cup of complimentary sujungkwa, or cinnamon tea. The sole 'dessertâ?� offering ' refreshingly cool, sweet and comforting ' it ushered in a serene ending to the meal and, contrary to my sentiments in the opening paragraph, was best enjoyed alone.

    The little cottage tucked next to Kim's Karate on East Colonial has housed many food venues through the years, from fancy to funky to fried fish. Shin Jung, offering traditional dishes from its Korean kitchen, might just be the one that stays.

    Interior design touches are few, but the spotless cleanliness of the place is enough. There are four booths along the west wall, a half dozen four-top tables and one large table in a back corner. Add in a few community-event posters, written in Korean, and that's it. No ferns. No frills.

    Interior design touches are few, but the spotless cleanliness of the place is enough. There are four booths along the west wall, a half dozen four-top tables and one large table in a back corner. Add in a few community-event posters, written in Korean, and that's it. No ferns. No frills.

    The main dish offerings ($7.95-$15.95) cover an exotic gamut: Hawe nang myun, which is a cold-noodle dish served with hot-spice stingray, to al by tang, a short rib of beef soup. For my midweek lunch, I experimented with dolt bib bb ($8.95). First presented is a large stone bowl filled with steamed white rice, containing shredded vegetables: carrots, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms and bean sprouts. Arrayed nearby are smaller dishes of veggies: a mild combo of seaweed, more bean sprouts, scallion tops, radishes in sweet marinade, tofu slices sautéed in a sesame sauce, cabbage in a Korean red-pepper broth and a cup of delicious steamy broth of a mild white-radish soup.

    The main dish offerings ($7.95-$15.95) cover an exotic gamut: Hawe nang myun, which is a cold-noodle dish served with hot-spice stingray, to al by tang, a short rib of beef soup. For my midweek lunch, I experimented with dolt bib bb ($8.95). First presented is a large stone bowl filled with steamed white rice, containing shredded vegetables: carrots, zucchini, shiitake mushrooms and bean sprouts. Arrayed nearby are smaller dishes of veggies: a mild combo of seaweed, more bean sprouts, scallion tops, radishes in sweet marinade, tofu slices sautéed in a sesame sauce, cabbage in a Korean red-pepper broth and a cup of delicious steamy broth of a mild white-radish soup.

    The smiling server treated me like the new kid on the block, hurrying over to take my chop sticks from my hands to show me that I should be tossing and stirring the rice dish in my stone bowl because "delicious sesame oil hiding in the bottom." (Sesame oil and seeds are a mainstay in the cuisine.) She checked frequently to see if I was enjoying my meal and to fill my water glass.

    The smiling server treated me like the new kid on the block, hurrying over to take my chop sticks from my hands to show me that I should be tossing and stirring the rice dish in my stone bowl because "delicious sesame oil hiding in the bottom." (Sesame oil and seeds are a mainstay in the cuisine.) She checked frequently to see if I was enjoying my meal and to fill my water glass.

    There is also a 10-item barbecue list ($7.95-$14.95) that gives ultra-authentic choices to more stalwart diners -- for example, unmarinated beef tongue, beef tripe and beef intestine.

    There is also a 10-item barbecue list ($7.95-$14.95) that gives ultra-authentic choices to more stalwart diners -- for example, unmarinated beef tongue, beef tripe and beef intestine.

    The last part of the menu presents the house specials ($7.95-$39.95), which include everything from an eyebrow-raising "Korean intestine hot pot" to "assorted meat portions" to a seafood pancake. I opted for a green-pepper pancake, a lacy affair about the size of a small pizza, concocted of shredded hot Korean green peppers and bits of carrot dusted with flour and sizzled quickly in a tad of sesame oil. It was spicy, but delicious.

    The last part of the menu presents the house specials ($7.95-$39.95), which include everything from an eyebrow-raising "Korean intestine hot pot" to "assorted meat portions" to a seafood pancake. I opted for a green-pepper pancake, a lacy affair about the size of a small pizza, concocted of shredded hot Korean green peppers and bits of carrot dusted with flour and sizzled quickly in a tad of sesame oil. It was spicy, but delicious.

    My service was so attentive and my lunch there was so tasty that I'll be going back to try the noodles in a stone pot. You carnivores who think you've tried it all . . . beat a track, the gop chang jun gol is waiting.

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