Korean and Cajun?
Unusual partners make a nice team
By Candy Sagon
October 3, 2010
Korean and ... Cajun??? I have to admit, this idea seemed a little strange to me when I first heard about Mokomandy, a sleek new restaurant in Sterling. And I'm not the only one. Owner Thaddeus Kim has heard almost every variation of "You're adding kimchi to your jambalaya?"
The answer, thank goodness, is no. This isn't fusion. It is more like a duet: two cuisines, kept separate but harmonized into an interesting, fun dining experience.
In a way, it's how Kim grew up. His mother is from Louisiana, his father from Korea. Kim, a lawyer who also has worked for his father's high-tech company, says he wanted to open a restaurant "that celebrates the diversity of our country." The name stands for "modern Korean by Mandy," in honor of his mother, who would cook both cuisines for the family.
Mandy is not the one in this kitchen, however. That job belongs to first-time executive chef Daniel Wilcox Stevens, who has put a sophisticated spin on well-known Korean dishes such as bulgogi beef and on Cajun all-stars such as gumbo and jambalaya.
Manager Neill Blackwood, formerly of Trummer's on Main, has crafted a small but stellar list of specialty cocktails to pair with the food, including a wickedly smooth Sazerac made with an unexpected dollop of coffee syrup. In case you didn't know, the Louisiana Legislature declared the Sazerac, a potent rye whiskey drink, the official state cocktail in 2008, which is why it was a must for Mokomandy.
The restaurant, which opened in August, is in a great-looking space in an otherwise unremarkable shopping center. There are blond wood tables and flooring, comfy chairs, lots of natural light from tall front windows, and a spacious bar highlighted with a red accent wall. Every guest I took here stopped, looked around and said, "Wow."
Of course, the question is, does the food rate a wow? I'd say it rates a "wo." It's a little timid on the seasoning here and there, the desserts could be better, and the chef needs to talk to whomever's doing the frying, but Stevens and company are definitely on the right track.
The menu takes the traditional Korean idea of banchan -- lots of little dishes of pickled vegetables and other finger foods to accompany your meal -- and builds on that. There are 16 different panchan at $2 each, including two kinds of kimchi, deep-fried kale chips, mixed fries, firecracker carrots and pickled green tomatoes. The fries, sweet and white potato, need salt, but the pickled veggies are terrific.
Order a selection to go along with the ssam: Korean-style lettuce wraps filled with purple rice; your choice of chicken, beef of pork; and a pickled radish garnish. They're cute, inoffensive, but kind of bland. They definitely need a kick from some kimchi or, even better, the restaurant's own hot sauce. Ask for some.
From there, you can choose from 13 small dishes, most of which are Cajun-style. Order the jambalaya or the gumbo, and you will understand what the chef means by "modern" cooking. The dishes are almost deconstructed so that the main ingredients are accentuated and artfully arranged instead of just glopped together. The smoky jambalaya, with house-made cracklin's and sausage, is a winner; the mild gumbo, with its bland drumstick awkwardly sticking upright in the rice, pales in comparison.
The kitchen redeems itself, however, with the crab cake po' boys, which I think my husband would have ordered at each of our three visits if I had let him. The three crab cakes are done slider-style on petite brioche buns. They are a perfect little combo of sweet crab, buttery bun, tart pickle and creamy remoulade sauce. The hardest thing you'll have to do is share them.
We also liked the gator croquettes, crunchy golf-ball-size fritters that are described on the menu thus: "House-made bacon, bechamel, sauce piquante." Well, all those things are in there, but there's also something else: real gator meat. Yes, really. If you must know, it's sweeter and even milder than chicken.
Of the Korean small dishes, several seemed Americanized, with the seasoning seriously toned down. The bulgogi beef, for example, wasn't as thinly sliced as is typical, and the marinade seemed overly sweet.
We had more success when, on our last visit, we ordered three of the larger, entree-size dishes to share among four. The steak frites (how did a French dish sneak in here?) was a killer. Tender beef medallions, roast vegetables, sweet potato fries (still needing salt) and a rich red wine sauce were all delicious.
Also nicely done: the chap che, a simple but popular Korean dish of beef, glass noodles and vegetables. For our third entree, we went for a Cajun (and Southern) staple: fried chicken with macque choux and collard greens. Macque choux is an irresistibly rich, creamy, spicy corn dish, and this was textbook-perfect. Just as good were the bacon-flecked greens. As for the fried chicken, however, the white meat was dry; it should have been yanked from the fryer several minutes earlier.
In fact, frying here seems to be giving the kitchen some problems. The fried boudin balls were golden on the outside, but the inside sausage mixture was undercooked. Same problem with the beignets: From the outside they looked fine, but the insides were doughy.
The restaurant also needs to increase the number of servers. We had a great waiter, and the manager and hostess pitched in, as well, but should the restaurant's popularity increase, that won't be enough.
But here's why, despite its flaws, I can't help but respect and commend this place: its coffee. Mokomandy not only uses a freshly roasted, local brand -- Caffe Pronto from Annapolis -- but also serves it in 17-ounce (serves three) and 32-ounce (serves five) French-press coffee pots. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a decent cup of coffee in most restaurants? Especially in the 'burbs? But here, coffee and coffee lovers get their due. As the Cajuns would say, ca c'est bon.