Woomi Garden

Korean restaurants are hard to write about for the very fact that most are quite good and they serve basically the same array of traditional dishes.  However, my visits to various establishments were generally marred by loud and flashy restaurant environments or food that appeared mass produced without a sense of personal touch.  For these very reasons, many Korean restaurants have been visited, but only a couple have made it on my blog site.

Woomi Garden

I had passed by Woomi Garden for many years from my visits to my favorite Cantonese joint (read blog) located close by in Wheaton, MD.  Speaking to some Koreans, they always pointed to this establishment, and I had to get over my bias of the place due its rather rundown look on the exterior.  Furthermore, a great coupon offer appeared online, and that sealed the deal for me to make it through its doors.  Walking in, you immediately sense that its charm saw its heyday a few years ago with the decor looking very Old School/Old World and the place feeling that it needs a good scrub down from all the barbecue smoke from the last decade.  Counteracting my immediate reaction, the sight of expats and a fairly full house were the assurances that I needed to quell some of my trepidations.

Korean Side Dishes Miso Soup

A litmus test of Korean restaurants, in my mind, is with the side dishes placed before the arrival of any dish.  The seven small bowls were served on both occasions with only a single change on another visit.  The Kimchi tasted quite tangy and spicy, with a slightly crunch to indicate its proper breakdown from the spice marination.  The beansprouts were slightly salty with a hint of sesame oil and tasting still slightly crunchy.  The unwaxed cucumber (Kirby type found in Korean marts) were slightly wilted from a slightly sweet spicy mix.  The Chinese spinach was barely wilted and slightly salty and aromatic from sesame oil. The shredded daikon was crunchy, sweet, and tangy. The salad was deceptively tasty from a light vinaigrette.  The pressed tofu skins were savory and meaty in texture.  The potato was savory from soy sauce and slightly sweet.  All these dishes passed the litmus test well, and not a single morsel was left on both visits.  The complementary Miso soup was properly made with enough bean paste in the soup, mixed with pieces of tofu, umami-filled Wakame seaweed, and slivers of green onion.

Mandu

One appetizer that is a favorite of mine is Mandu or Fried Dumplings.  The appetizer portion here is quite sizable with six rather large pockets making it to the table.  The skin was the thick version made blistered from some good hot frying, but it was not too stodgy to fill one up quickly.  One bite into it revealed a fairly savory mixture of minced pork and beef, made a bit fragrant from a good amount of finely chopped green onion.  The side sauce was tasting salty from soy sauce, tangy from vinegar, and spicy from slices of jalapeño, making the pockets even more tempting.  Despite having eaten three of them, they didn’t fill me up nor prevented me from looking forward to the rest of the meal.  Not a bad start.

Beef Bulgogi

Beef Bulgogi

On one occasion, we ordered two main proteins for the mains.  The first was the obligatory Beef Bulgogi.  The plate of raw meat arrived looking bright red and very freshly prepared.  Our waitress had heated up the grill plate and thankfully the strong vents were working, a common complaint I have about many such eateries.  The grilled product was tender pieces of beef, tasting well-seasoned of slightly sweet and quite peppery from white pepper.   The lettuce leaves served as wraps for these meaty morsels, but I found the side miso-based sauce too salty with each packet.  I have had many versions of this dish, and I must admit that this is a very good rendition here.

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Barbecue Pork Belly

The other main was Marinated Pork.  Just when I thought that the beef dish was a great hit, this meat cut did not take a secondary role. The pieces of pork were quite tender, tasting quite sweet, and made spicy and slightly smoky from the use of dried chili powder.  It was this combination of flavors that made each piece irresistible and especially interesting from that smoky note which reminded me of smoked paprika.  I must have had overdosed on meat that night due to the latter two meat dishes and their well-marinated flavors.  But with such wonderful flavors and quality meat cuts, one just can’t help himself from doing so.

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Jap Chae

Jap Chae is a common dish found in most Korean places, and an order was placed here. The large plate arrived with a generous portion.  What I appreciated about what I ate was the tapioca noodles that were slightly al dente, the pieces of carrot, sweet onion, red pepper that were quite slightly crunchy to provide a textural counterpoint, pieces of green onion that added the slightly pungency, the wood fungus that added the slippery texture, all topped by egg strands.  The seasoning was perfect with its savoriness and the right amount of sesame oil as to not overwhelm the whole mix.  This is another must-order here in my books.

Barbecue Shrimp

Another visit was marked by two other proteins for the grill pan.  The first was Large Shrimp.  The order was generous with around a dozen of the butterflied large pieces.  Our waitress was so busy running around that night, being a full house on the weekend, that I had to attend to the cooking.  The pieces were well-marinated tasting slightly sweet with a bite from a good dose of black pepper, which made the seafood more interesting than the usual treatment.  Unfortunately, the pieces were slightly overcooked due to my late rescue, but the flavors made up for that flaw.  The vegetable sides were sweet red pepper, sweet onion, button mushroom, broccoli, and Shiitake mushroom, the latter being the star among the veggies with its meaty texture and boschy notes.  If weren’t for the overcooking, this would have been the perfect dish.

Barbecue Chicken Breast

To balance things out, we had to order the Chicken dish which comes in the breast form.  The fairly large pieces tasted well-marinated, as in the case of all the above proteins, quite sweet from the caramelization on the grill, and a hint of white pepper.  Yes, the poultry was a bit dry due to the lack of attention from our super busy waitress, but I managed to save it from beyond redemption. If chicken breast is your thing, I won’t hesitate ordering it here due to the flavors that each piece carried.

Sweet Rice Soup

 

To end the meal, we were served wth a traditional “dessert”.  It consisted of a slightly sweet soup made “milky” from grains of rice boiled until it is quite spongy.  The soup tasted sweet from the use of rock sugar which has a subtle distinctive taste from granular sugar.  This reminded me of my grandmother’s version, but she would let the brew ferment for a few days to produce an amazing boozy elixir.  But this meal-ender was refreshing and enough to give me the sugar fix without saturating my taste buds.

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Woomi GardenWoomi Garden is definitely a great find for Korean fare.  Yes, its decor is screaming for a serious update and a heavy scrub down.  Putting that aside, what makes this place spectacular is the finesse and flavors in all the dishes that we ordered, starting from the proper Miso soup, to the pretty good dumplings, to the scrumptious side dishes that balanced the meal perfectly, to the proteins that were well-marinated and from good cuts, and to the Jap Chae that had a perfect balance of flavors and textures.  Again, never judge a restaurant by its faded front and decor, but by its offerings and the sight of a filled dining room.  Now, time for me to get a couple more coupons before the offer is over.

Woomi Garden Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mandu

An attempt to have brunch at a Cajun eatery a couple of weeks ago had to be aborted.  We arrived there just past the opening hour (1 p.m.), and we were told by the hostess that they would not seat us for another hour due to a staff shortage.  I asked to speak to the manager, and he reassured me that it was going to be a 10-minute wait.  While sitting at the bar while the restaurant was half empty, we struck up a conversation with a young couple who were equally as perplexed as we were, and they relayed that they had heard that it was the chef’s second day on the cooking line.  Upon hearing this, my friend and I looked at each other and quickly hauled our behinds out of that joint.

Mandu UpstairsJust a block down is Mandu, a Korean restaurant that serves traditional cuisine in a modern setting.  Most Korean restaurants that I have frequented are usually located in remote warehouse areas, or in little “Koreatowns” in the suburbs, where English is the second language judging by the retail signs and advertisements.  To stumble across one in the heart of the city, Dupont Circle, is definitely a rarity and a pleasant surprise.  My dining partner had noticed their $12 lunch special on his way to the first locale, and we decided to give Mandu a try being that it was getting to be way past my meal time (hypoglycemia is nature’s most infallible meal clock).

Stepping in the restaurant, you do not get the impression that it is a typical Korean eatery due to the rather modern ambience and the multi-cultural staff.  Having visited this place in its previous life as a Himalayan restaurant years ago, I knew there was a second floor with beautiful lighting and it was more spacious than the bottom floor.  We planted ourselves at a table under the skylight and proceeded to order.

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We decided to begin the meal with a house libation – Soujutini.  It is made with a Korean distilled liquor and an assortment of juice flavors – aloe, grape, mango, peach, pineapple, orange or yogurt.  I ordered mine made with aloe juice since I love this stuff, which I get regularly from my Korean grocer.  The liquor had a kick to it while it provided a rather strong grain alcohol note to the sweet juice.  My friend’s version was made with yogurt which was interesting, and according to him,  it tasted a bit like medicine – not quite Bailey’s Cream here.

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We decided to order a traditional appetizer, Mandu or Pot Stickers.  This place offers a variety made with Shrimp, Beef & Pork, or Vegetable.  The kitchen was flexible enough to allow me to order a couple of each type, which is not common in most Korean eateries.  The plate arrived with the potstickers lightly pan-fried after a short boil.  The dough was quite al dente but not overly so,  and the different fillings were discernable.  The accompanying dipping sauce provided the soy-saltiness and rice-vinegar-sourness to these dumplings – a good start.

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My favorite part of a Korean meal is the array of pickles and cold vegetable dishes that are customarily served with the main course.  Ours arrived with the omnipresent Kimchi pickles, eggplant and broccoli, pickled cucumbers, and marinated potato with green beans. The Kimchi was fiery, sour, and not too pungent (most are sanitized for the American palate), the eggplant and broccoli were still slightly crunchy with a sesame oil note (my friend enjoyed this), the cucumbers were fiery and slightly sour (loved it), and the marinated potato was really flavorful due to a sweet soy marinade.  I could have eaten the whole plate alone but I had to share (drats).  We requested another plate after we polished this one off quickly.

Spicy Pork Barbecue

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Our brunch platter came in a long quadrangle plate with the different elements taking their proper place.  As an attempt to bring in a non-Korean clientele and to provide a brunch menu, this platter has traditional dishes along with typical American brunch fare.  The traditional elements were a choice of Beef, Pork, Chicken or Vegetarian Korean barbecue, Gimbap (Korean vegetable-rice roll), Chive Pancakes, alongside the non-Korean hash browns and a vegetable omelette.  The hash browns and omelette (real fluffy and light) were decent but nothing spectacular, the pancakes a bit gummy (most I have tried usually are) but tasty, the Gimbap roll was good and fresh, my order of Pork barbecue was full of flavor but not as fiery as I have had elsewhere, and my friend’s order of Beef was tender and had the customary sweet, salty, and dark flavors.  Nothing particularly outstanding but good enough for me.

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A bowl of fresh-cut fruits was the dessert offering that came with the brunch special.  It looked very pretty, but the pieces of cantaloupe and melon were still a bit crunchy and not at their prime.  But I can’t expect these fruits to be at their peak during a time when we have not approached Spring yet.  However, it provided a good palate cleanser after the above dishes.

If you happen to be downtown and in the mood for Korean fare, Mandu has two restaurants (K St. and 18th St.) that will provide a casual modern ambience with good authentic cooking; this would save you a trip out of town and into the suburbs.  The menu is quite extensive and its offerings sound appealing, especially the small-bites (Jeon) and the stew dishes.    I see myself making another visit in the near future.

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