Cho's Garden

$$$$ ($15-$24)

Editorial Review

Already, Northern Virginia is home to more Korean restaurants than Joan Rivers has had face-lifts, and if you were only to read the menu at Cho's Garden, one of the newest additions, you might wonder why it gets so crowded. Like many of the others, it has a sushi bar that's nothing special by Japanese standards. The Korean dishes listed in the handsomely bound bill of fare--noodles, seafood pancakes and grilled meats--don't sound like anything out of the ordinary, either.

More than most, however, Cho's Garden knows how to keep its guests entertained. It celebrates Monday through Thursday with happy-hour specials and Wednesday night with karaoke. Its waitresses tend to smother you with attention--which is not always the case in Korean eateries. They tease and flirt and insist on stir-cooking whatever ingredients you've selected for your meal, using one of the small grills set into the tables. Repeat customers sometimes are greeted with a gratis nosh. And should you ask about the big cloth-covered drums on display, you're apt to get a little speech about where rice wine comes from (the "drums" turn out to be sake containers).

Cho's Garden really, really wants diners to like it.

Hardly anyone orders appetizers here, and there are only a handful from which to choose, including shrimp tempura, some fine fried dumplings, and miso soup (although miso soup comes with many of the entrees, so it would be silly to order it). Most diners skip right to the big plates, knowing that the main dishes will be preceded by panchan, the array of side dishes that serve to whet the appetite before a Korean repast. Inevitably, these little white bowls include shreds of gingery beef, several kinds of fiery fermented vegetables (kimchi), cool marinated greens, fish wrapped in egg, crisp bean sprouts and what a waitress jokingly called "Korean Jell-O, only not sweet." That would be the wiggly rectangles of nutty-flavored acorn curd. The selection of these snacks is not as great as I've sampled at other places, but it's all tasty stuff.

One of the draws of this style of cooking is its accessibility. Whether you are a conservative or adventurous eater, the Korean repertoire reaches out with flavors you're likely to enjoy: salt, sugar, mild, hot. It tends also to be fresh and even healthy fare. At Cho's Garden, the air is fragrant with the aroma of garlic, chilies, beef and onion--an instant attention-grabber and an enticing backdrop.

There are several dishes you shouldn't miss. One is the classic bibim bap, a mound of warm rice served in a thick clay bowl and colorfully decked out with lean beef, threads of carrot and radish, a fried egg and the aforementioned acorn curd. In a Korean home, the ingredients might make use of leftovers; in a restaurant, the toppings are similar to panchan, though typically their seasonings are milder. This is because before anyone eats bibim bap, a dollop or more of red pepper sauce is stirred into it, transforming a comforting Jekyll into a spunky Hyde.

Some like it hot, and for them, there is much to investigate. Spicy octopus, for instance, teams the main ingredient--unusually tender, in this case--with carrots and onions, everything slathered in a wicked chili paste. Spicy pork, ignited with green chilies, tips the heat meter, too. (My flame-quencher of choice is a cold, bold sake, far more interesting than the thin Korean beer poured here.)

Tamer, but no less delicious, is the seafood pancake. As big as a hubcap, the pleasantly chewy circle, jazzed up with scallions and scattered with squid and shrimp, is accompanied by a rousing dip of soy sauce, sugar, vinegar and sesame seeds. Try to stop at a single slice. I never can. And barbecue fans will find happiness in garlicky marinated grilled beef ribs (kalbi), cooked to a crisp-soft texture and accompanied by bundles of lettuce leaves, warm rice and chili paste--the makings of a savory Asian taco of sorts.

This solid, satisfying cooking helps make up for the occasional service miscues. As much as I appreciate the waitresses' enthusiasm, the constant hovering can be annoying. Three people might ask to take your drink order, but then forget to clear the table of dishes, or disappear just when you want the check.

One of the better bargains in the area is the lunch buffet, priced at $8.95 a person. Set up in the lounge area of the restaurant, the spread is both pretty and varied. The draws might include glassy vermicelli tossed with vegetables and meat (jap chae), chili-laced beef, marinated sprouts, pork ribs, sweet potato tempura and several kinds of fresh fruit. Less successful are the gloppy chicken teriyaki and the sushi choices, which taste tired.

The space was previously occupied by a Denny's restaurant. The new owners have gone to considerable lengths to help us forget its fast-food roots, etching the big windows with landscapes, setting vases and other pottery on the half-walls that divide the big room, and laying down fancy gold-and-red carpet. Even the sleek chairs look like something you'd find in an ad in Metropolitan Home magazine. In the rear, behind a rice paper screen, awaits a private party room--and yet another reason to join the Cho's Garden fold.

--Tom Sietsema (Nov. 10, 2002)