694 N. Snelling Ave. N., St. Paul
IF YOU DIDN'T go for broke spending on Thanksgiving dinner groceries and are sick of staring at the remainders in the fridge, I highly recommend paying a visit to the Korean restaurant Shilla. It's a place where the unique odor of spicy food and Omar Sharif cigarette smoke crawls into your nose and shouts "eat me!" Suffice it to say that any clinging head cold is bound to end up with its tail between its legs after a meal here.
The decor--some nondescript booths, dingy carpeting, and a few Korean posters--is nothing to gush over, reminding my friend of a cheerful "Korean Perkins." No matter: Shilla's warmth and uniqueness derive from its attentive staff and food. If you look the slightest bit lost standing up to look for the restroom or lose a few moments staring over your food, someone is bound to come over and ask if everything is all right, guide you by hand to the washroom, or ladle more food onto your dish. Mothering is the rule of service here, and I must admit, we enjoyed every minute of it.
Appetizers are the easiest place to begin, because there are only three to choose from. (After that, there are myriad choices in categories that include casseroles, barbecue, and "popular Korean food.") We chose the bin dae tuk to start with, a thin, crisp, and slightly greasy pancake stuck with micro-bits of pork and vegetable ($3.95). They weren't the absolute best we've had (that honor is reserved for the Korea House on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis, where the pancake is an inch thick, studded with giant pieces of pork and vegetable, and chews and swallows like butter), but they were damn delicious soaked in the accompanying chili oil and scallion-spiked soy sauce. Next time we'll be sure to give the fried dumpling buns ($3.95) and chicken egg rolls ($3.50) a try.
True to its category, the bin dae tuk whetted our appetites, making the few minutes that went by as we waited for our entrees seem long and tortuous. Our brief wait was completely gratified by the pleasant diversions accompanying the main meal. Along with our shared order of bul go gi (beef barbecue) came several small dishes of kimchee and other Korean vegetables, including wonderful pickled turnips, pickled fish, cucumbers with chili paste, and cold, seasoned potatoes. Each of us were kept busy adding varying amounts of these treats to the sizzling platter of shredded, barbecued, seasoned beef, and to bowls of sticky rice, making each bite a different experience. The spice was just enough to force us to make good use of the pitcher of iced water on our table, which our waitress diligently kept full.
The masterpiece of the menu, Shilla jungol, did indeed prove to be a genuine work of culinary art. Priced at $25.90 for a minimum of two people, it could have served the four of us three times over. Cooked on a portable burner in a big steel wok by the side of the table just before it is served, this seafood casserole is a feast for all senses. We stared for a while at the mammoth clam shell, floating in the broth with what seemed like all other creatures of the ocean keeping it company. When the sea of broth started boiling and bubbling over, we knew it was time for table fishing. A meal fit for royalty, we ladled the mix into small plastic bowls, our spoons encountering rich stores of squid, octopus tentacles, pudgy oysters, fleshy mussels, clams, crab meat, various types of shrimp, vegetables, and all sorts of noodles. Again, aside from the spicy, fragrant broth and the fresh, perfectly-cooked seafood (the octopus was al dente, the mussels plush and tender), the big thrill was in discovering an exciting new combination of flavors in every bite, whether it was a spoon of carrot with vermicelli and salty baby shrimp, or a spoon of flat, glassy rice noodles with a piece of carrot and a clam.
No dessert, unless you want to make something out of the bowl of peppermints standing by the cash register. But who needs a sugar rush when your nose is running, your eyes are burning bright, and your head is pleasantly lost in fruits of the sea stupor?
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