Wooed and Won
A Korean chain's newest outpost offers an enticing update of an old favorite
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006
** and 1/2 (out of four)
With 20 exceptional tapas (or small plates) to choose from at Woo Lae Oak in Tysons Corner, it's tough to pick a favorite. I am partial, though, to the succulent, rare duck breast with roasted figs, dotted with a slightly tart balsamic reduction, as well as the perfectly seared scallops accompanied by a refreshing salsa of mango, pineapple and avocado and laced with lemon chili oil. Both arouse my appetite for more good bites to come, including delicately fried, tender calamari on a plate decorated with a smoky red bell pepper aioli with a cayenne kick.
On Thursday nights a Sinatra-style, four-piece jazz band plays in the spacious lounge, not far from the flickering, tiled fireplace and the snug, glass-enclosed cigar room - a curious bubble that seats four. In one, low-lit corner, a soft, leather sofa is sure to become a romantic spot for a champagne toast. Better still and surprising, the servers speak fluent English, rather than Korean, and the menu in the main dining room is easy to read and navigate.
This is not the Woo Lae Oak I've enjoyed for many years in Pentagon City. The best known and, perhaps, oldest Korean barbecue restaurant in the Washington area has a new and unique sibling, which opened in October in a former Sam & Harry's steak house.
At the Tysons outpost, co-owners Kyung and Hang Nam Paik and partner Paul Song have created an exciting and beautifully designed, 260-seat Korean hybrid with a sushi bar and four private dining rooms that can accommodate from 10 to 70 people. (In addition to the two area locations, the Paik extended family has a restaurant in Chicago, Beverly Hills and the Soho section of New York, as well as two in Seoul.)
The new restaurant features warm, peach-colored walls and comfortable booths that easily seat eight. There's lots more to look at. A series of playful abstract paintings along one flank are by the Paiks' daughter Helen. And the glass-fronted wine room racks, a vestige of the steak house days, hold a collection of Korean celadon pottery.
"We wanted a more mainstream place that Koreans would be proud of, one that would also appeal to people unfamiliar with Korean food," Song says.
To that end, the owners hired Moroccan-born Taib Chebarab, a former executive chef of the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel, to create the Asian-influenced small-plate menu and to oversee the five seasoned Korean chefs who prepare traditional dishes that are light on the oil and have a slight Western presentation, which can be as simple as a familiar sprig of Italian parsley. The Tysons menu has dropped dishes that have lost broad appeal from the standard Woo Lae Oak roster, Song says. Anyone with a hankering for abalone porridge or beef tripe barbecue, for example, should visit the Pentagon City branch.
In addition to the tapas available at dinner, the Tysons Woo Lae Oak also turns out some memorable appetizers, particularly the perfect, thin-skinned, pan-fried dumplings filled with a savory combination of minced beef, pork, cabbage and tofu. The same seasoned soy sauce for dipping dumplings comes with one of my all-time best bets, the flaky, egg-battered, pan-fried fish fillets. Boy, are they simple but satisfying. I was also impressed with the elegant, thin crepes - stuffed with shredded beef, shrimp and slivered vegetables - that arrive with a sweet, citrus-mustard sauce.
A Caesar salad is less successful, composed, one night, of brown-edged romaine lettuce, fried noodles and gummy Parmesan cheese, overwhelmed by a cloying, fruity dressing. And, in another act of fusion gone wrong, an arugula salad turns out to be a jumble of greens with warm shiitake mushrooms, blue cheese and crisp noodles soaked in sesame oil. A far better vegetarian starter is the fresh grilled asparagus splashed with tangy ginger vinaigrette.
You will find Korean entree classics such as bibim bap - a homey, hot stone pot filled with crisped rice mixed with fresh vegetables and a choice of beef, chicken or squid, topped with a fried egg. This is a great dish for the kids if you hold the hot red chili paste that is served on the side. This grown-up's new favorite entree is the tender braised beef short ribs, which come in a covered casserole with a sublime, slightly sweet sauce flavored with Chinese dates. Entrees are served with four panchan, the side dishes of seasoned vegetables that always include kimchi - spicy pickled cabbage. Overall, they are fine, though I did find chunks of cardboard mixed in with the like-colored sauteed oyster mushrooms on one evening.
Many people order one or more of the barbecue dishes, such as the tender marinated gal bi (beef short ribs) or bulgogi (sliced rib eye steak), which are cooked at the center of the dining table on a recessed grill. I must take issue, though, with the combination barbecue: presented before grilling as a large shallow bowl of raw beef, chicken, pork, scallops, shrimp and vegetables swimming together in a marinade. Food safety and cross contamination should be a consideration, with each item presented in a separate bowl with its own pair of chopsticks for turning on the grill.
Diners can accompany their dishes with a choice of two dozen fairly priced, mainline California and Australian wines. I prefer the Cass brand Korean beer anytime.
For many years, the only dessert available at Woo Lae Oak was sliced navel orange and Juicy Fruit gum. But the Tysons location offers a more ambitious menu, which includes rich, cocoa-dusted, pyramid-shaped chocolate mousse and strongly flavored green tea ice cream served in a martini glass. Choices are good, which is why it's nice to have another Woo Lae Oak in our area.