By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005
More than 25 years ago in a section of Los Angeles that is now known as Koreatown, I stumbled upon my first Korean restaurant. Overwhelmed by the aroma of sizzling garlic, I followed my nose and discovered the pleasure of marinated short ribs and whole cloves of garlic cooked on a tabletop grill.
Over the years, I've grown fond of panchan, the series of assorted side dishes -- seasoned vegetables, fermented legumes, preserved fish and, of course, kimchi, the spicy pickled cabbage -- that are brought, free of charge, to complement a main course. "What's all this?" newcomers always seem to ask when confronted with as many as 10 panchan dishes just moments after placing an order. Korean cooks' love of variety and abundance, as well as of garlic, has kept me a fan.
Fortunately, the Washington area has its own Korea-town, with approximately 30 restaurants along a four-mile stretch of Little River Turnpike in Alexandria and Annandale, between Interstate 395 and the Beltway. On the eastern edge is Hee Been, a Korean barbecue restaurant that opened in 1994 and reopened last July after an 18-month expansion that cost more than $2 million.
The new, 10,000-square-foot Hee Been -- whose name translates as "fortunate customer" -- bears no physical resemblance to the well-worn old digs, which were a third the size. Just inside the front door, off to the right, is an industrial-modern and decidedly manly lounge furnished with comfortable black leather sofas and sectioned into seating areas by tropical plants. Most nights, a handful of Asian guys in their thirties chat and sip martinis at the black granite bar, which is softly lit by a back wall of milky glass that changes colors, from red to blue to green. Rap music plays, while two plasma-screen TVs show sports (with the sound turned off, thankfully). The first time I took a look at the wine list, I was surprised to see an international and thoughtful selection of both reds and whites by the glass, plus fine Japanese sakes and Korean beers, such as OB and Cass.
In the main dining room, homey and claustrophobic has given way to polished and spacious. Gorgeous mahogany dividers topped with frosted-glass panels divide the main room into sectors, lending privacy and warmth. There's a stunning sushi bar off to one side backed by an artful display of painted platters and seashells. Pass through a sort of mini-rotunda back in a corner and you come upon five small, pretty private rooms. Rat Pack tunes in the background provide a mellow vibe. One familiar sight is the friendly and helpful waitresses dressed in cotton-candy-colored organdy gowns; they rush about delivering food and clearing plates while remaining visions of tranquillity and traditional style.
A large area at the center of the main dining room is devoted to a lunch buffet station, where customers circle a sumptuous steam table and cooks prepare a number of dishes on the spot. It's a great way for a novice to try some of the most popular dishes on the menu without having to commit to an entire entree. Lively on weekdays, the buffet is packed on weekends. I like to attack it in multiple visits, with a series of small plates, so the different sauces will not intermingle. Keep an eye on the chefs. The flaky pan-fried cod and saucer-size seafood pancakes are most flavorful when hot off the grill.
A lot of folks start with a cup of the thick pumpkin soup, which has just a touch of sweetness. It's difficult to maneuver the long ladle without getting orange globs everywhere, but it's worth the effort. An easy and wise choice is the beef noodle soup, which you assemble yourself from thick, chewy rice noodles, toasted green onions and strongly flavored broth. A small plate is just big enough for a meaty, glazed and appropriately messy sparerib along with a couple of delicate pan-fried dumplings stuffed with a smidgen of seasoned ground beef. A slice of the subtle green pea jelly makes a nice foil for a complicated salad of mung bean sprouts, red onion, enoki mushrooms and steamed conch tossed in a red chili vinaigrette. And there's always a lot of traffic at the sushi display, where you can round up the usual suspects (tuna, shrimp, salmon) or opt for the Korean-influenced spicy tuna roll, calamari sushi or smoky salmon skin roll.
You can get kalbi (beef short ribs), bulgogi (boneless rib-eye steak) and other classic Korean grilled meats at the lunch buffet. But for higher-quality, more tender, more delicious versions of them, order the meats at dinner, off the regular menu. Either way, a staff member will fire up the gas grill that's inset into your table, snip the meat into bite-size pieces with a pair of scissors and turn it for you on the grill until the meat has browned and the edges are crisp. That's when it's time to spread some of the brown soy paste on a lettuce leaf, add a piece or two of the meat and wrap it into a sort of beef salad hand roll. Delicious. In fact, Hee Been's barbecue is no better than the grilled marinated meats available at other restaurants specializing in Korean barbecue, in Korea-town or elsewhere in the Washington area, for that matter. But few of these restaurants, overall, are as attractive and as comfortable.
Dinner is also the time to enjoy jap chae, which is a black pepper and sesame oil-flavored stir-fry of rice noodles and slivered vegetables. It's always better made to order, and this kitchen does a good job. A big bowl of ice-cold beef broth with sweet-potato vermicelli and sliced Asian pear may not sound like an appropriate winter dish. But cold and refreshing, it turns out to be just the thing to balance the intense red chili sauce used in many of the panchan dishes. On the other hand, deep-fried cod head is basically breading and bone, with little meat to speak of -- perhaps there's an acquired taste for that kind of crunch. No matter, there are plenty of other choices, and always complimentary slices of orange for dessert.
My favorite Hee Been dish, hwe dup bap, is not available on the buffet, but you'll find it on both the lunch and dinner menus. A big bowl of steamed rice is topped with a mountain of sliced raw tuna and red snapper, matchstick-cut vegetables and dried seaweed. It's a beautiful sight, until you mix the whole business together with the accompanying red chili sauce. I've learned that the proper way to eat hwe dup bap is with a spoon. I love it. This must be Korean comfort food, the equivalent of spaghetti with meatballs or corned beef with cabbage. It certainly soothes me.