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Friday, Jan. 18, 2008
TOKYO FOOD FILE
The fiery flavor of Korean winter
A fter all the holiday feasting, the boozing and carousing, it comes as no little relief to get back to basics. Warming sustenance is what we crave in this coldest of seasons. And few things are more comforting, to body and spirit alike, than the hearty home cooking of the Korean Peninsula.
So glory be to Hallelujah. It's not just one of Tokyo's oldest Korean restaurants — funky and convivial, it was catering to devotees in Hyakunincho long before that neighborhood north of Shinjuku acquired its "Little Seoul" epithet — it's also one of the tastiest, most authentic places in the area. But it has been quite a while since we've made that particular pilgrimage. There's no need to now, since we discovered that it has a branch not far from Gaienmae, just off Killer-dori (Gaien Nishi-dori).
It's very hard to miss: Just look for the freestanding two-story house with its frontage of clapboard and rust-brown corrugated sheeting, and the sign in hangul lettering. It's a facade, artfully and expensively distressed, but the message is clear: We may be just a short stroll from the fancy boutiques of Aoyama-dori but here the old-fashioned Asian values of Shin-Okubo still pertain.
The ground-floor dining room has a bare stone floor, dark patinated walls, retro lampshades dangling from the ceiling and solid, metal-frame tables with cheerful red plastic tops. Upstairs you sit on mats at low tables (with leg wells, thankfully) under the exposed ceiling rafters. It's all as easygoing as a shokudo (canteen) and as easy on the wallet, too.
Compared to the no-frills feel of the original restaurant, here the Korean sensibility has definitely been modulated to make it more accessible to a mainstream Japanese clientele. Not that the flavors are in any way muted, just that they offer wine at this branch and the menu even includes a few original dishes with obvious Japanese accents. These include bajirak (asari clams) steamed in sake and yuba komachi-age (pounded whitemeat fish blended with vegetables, wrapped in soymilk skin and deep fried), but here served with a Korean kochujang sauce.
For those who only know Korean food through the ubiquitous barbecue joints, the surprise is how extensive the menu is, and how much seafood it features. Accessing it is another matter, of course, if neither Korean or Japanese is your lingua franca. But do not be deterred: Hallelujah — this branch, at least — is approachable and comfortable, and well worth the effort of breaking through the culture gap.
Proceed here as you would at an izakaya, ordering a few dishes at a time and starting with a few starters to go with the first round of beers — a choice of local Asahi or imported Hite, an anemic lager noteworthy only for the slogan on the label ("From Naturally Fresh Water").
To tune up your taste buds, complimentary saucers of kimchi and cooked bean sprouts are provided. If that merely tickles the palate, follow up with kakutegi (kkakdugi, in Korean), cubes of daikon radish prepared in the same fiery fermented kimchi sauce; or manul changajji, pungent whole cloves of garlic pickled in shoyu and dark vinegar. Ask for a side order of gim, gleaming sheets of seasoned nori seaweed, and you already start to feel halfway across the East Sea (as the Koreans like to call the ocean separating them from Japan).
Sashimi is almost as popular in Seoul as it is here in Tokyo. A close cousin is chaimuchi-tataki, a lightly smoked tuna (described as maguro, but tasting far more like yellowtail buri) served in delicate slices with a red chili sauce.
You can never go wrong with the flat Korean pancakes known as chijimi. There are two kinds to choose from here: bindaedok, made with yellow mung beans; and haemul pajun, featuring morsels of seafood and long negi scallions. Either way, they are too bland to qualify as the best in town — the ultimate chijimi remains for us a quest as elusive (and enjoyable) as searching for the perfect pizza — but still a satisfying counterpoint to the prevailing spicier flavors.
These are certainly in evidence when you order the excellent seafood dish sewoo-garibi, in which stir-fried prawns and scallops are smothered in palate- searing red sauce. Likewise with Hallelujah's trademark hot pots. One of our favorites is the casserole known as dakdori-tang: vegetables cooked at the table in a heavy pan along with chicken legs that have been liberally packed in chili and left to marinate.
If you really want to stoke up the inner furnaces, look no further than gamjatang. The name (literally "potato soup") only tells half the story. The main ingredient in this stew is a heaping portion of pork backbones, simmered in a peppery sauce. Once you have picked all the meat off the bone, you can ask for rice or noodles to cook down in the remaining soup, by now a thick, savory gravy.
However, our all-time favorite way of closing a meal here — or at any Korean restaurant worth its salt — is the stone pot dish known as dolsot bibimbap. A heavy black pot is heated up, greased with sesame oil and filled with cooked rice, topped with mixed vegetables and a raw egg. Against the sizzling hot stone, the rice forms a crisp layer that sticks unless you keep mixing and scraping it. Best enjoyed slowly, it is fun, tasty and satisfying — much like a meal here at Hallelujah.