Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner daily, 5:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Band nightly except Tuesday from 9 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Main courses at lunch average $4 to $5. Main courses at dinner $4.50 to $8.00; full-course dinners $13. Full dinner a la carte, with drink, tax and tip averages $15 to $20.
Dinner at the Gourmet Kingdom does not actually take as long as a flight to the Far East , it only seems to. But the results are similar. A second-floor dining room in a Crystal City highrise is the last place I would expect to find a Korean community center, but that is the purpose Gourmet Kingdom serves.
Throughout a Saturday evening a cross-section of Asians -- mostly Koreans, but also Asians from Japan to India -- gradually fills Gourmet Kingdom. Teen-agers in groups large enough to fill a banquet-size booth. Families with children sleeping on their shoulders. Men in suits, with roving eyes and pencil-thin mustaches. Quartets of giggling women. Lone women in svelte long dresses with ropes of pearls.Leather jackets. Pantsuits. Jeans. Gowns. Sweaters and shirts. Old. Young. Neither. Single. Together. gJoining together. They come and go or stay and dance. A long linger over drinks. Or a lightning-quick shoveling of bibim bab from a large stainless serving bowl.
The band plays "Tennessee Waltz" and French pop music between Oriental fox trots. A revolving mirrored globe sends streaks of light across the murals, the plastic flowers and grape-leaf ironwork of this ex-Italian or Spanish night spot. More than any other place I have seen in the Washington area, Gourmet Kingdom reproduces the ethnic commnity centers of 'hong Kong.
The maitre d'hotel is sitting with one group or another, leaving his conversation just long enough to wave you to whatever table is free. The waitresses, in long organza Korean robes embroidered with silk in Day-Glo colors, are serving in some erratic pattern that reflects a social structure we cannot fathom.
In any case, even when we brought an authentic Asian with us (a Burmese whom the waitress took to be Belgian), we were always served last. It took an hour to get our appetizers (those that came at all) and another hour for our main dishes, with the waitress frequently reassuring us it would only be a minute. Our check came after at least a half-hour after that.
Even if you are only an observer in this dining room's social milieu, you are plunged right into the middle of the relationships between kitchen and dining room. Once when we ordered a po po tray, the waitress refused to let us, explaining it would make the kitchen angry. A second time, the kitchen was in a better mood (even though there was a large party downstairs delaying our dinner) so we got our po po tray. One dish that sounded particularly interesting, a soup with nuts, meats and vegetables, prepared at the table, the chef reportedly refused to make altogether.
The menu is slightly pan-Asian, which means that there are four Japanese and about a dozen Chinese dishes along with three American steaks and more than 30 Korean main dishes. In addition, there is a back page written in Korean with no English translations.
The main body of the menu is divided into "Korean Cuisine" and Special Korean Cuisine." The former is mostly meat, fish and vegetables in hot or cold soups, but it includes three dishes that are the most popularly known Korean dishes in this country (with good reason). Two are charcoal-grilled, at least theoretically. But go gee is thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce, sugar, scallions, garlic and sesame seeds, then quickly grilled. At Gourmet Kingdom it was once dry and chewy but lately has been tender, most, and well-seasoned. (It does taste pan-fried rather than charcoal-grilled, however.) At $8, it was a generous portion of meat and would make a satisfying meal with a 75-cent side dish of vegetables. Gal bi gui is short ribs of beef, similarly seasoned and grilled, available as an appetizer for $2.50 a rib or as a main dish, three pieces for $7.50. If you look around at the other tables, though, you will undoubtedly be most tempted by the third -- and cheapest -- of these most familiary Korean dishes: bibim bab. A big stainless teel bowl is filled with fat, sticky rice. On top of it is a plate arranged like an artist's palette with a dab of orange (shredded carrots), a dab of pale green (cucumbers), shredded beef, a chunk of fried bean curd, various other shredded vegetables and, in the center, a fried egg. You scrape the whole thing into the rice, add a scoop of think dark hot-sweet bean paste with sesame seeds. And you blend it with a big spoon. The combination of flavors -- faintly sweet, faintly tart, faintly hot, with undertones of sesame oil and soy sauce and vinegar from the vegetables' and meats' marinades -- is delicious. The hot rice and cold vegetables are an interesting contrast of temperatures, along with the interplay of extures, colors and shaps. It is an adventure -- and a filling meal -- for $4.50.
One could guess that this is not the place to order Chinese and Japanese food, and indeed our Chinese steamed fish was like stewed frozen fish in sweet orange mucilage. Sashimi, Japanese raw fish, was a pretty arrangement of eight fish and seafoods, though the fish was not cold enough.
Even some of the Korean dishes missed. The triangular fried meat dumplings, mandoo gui, tend toward tastelessness. So did the soups we tried. We were surprised, since most dishes even if fatty or dry, are well-seasoned. Among appetizers, the sensation is raw beef, roughly cut, and permeated with soy, sugar, scallion and garlic, to be wrapped in raw cabbage leaves.
There is everything from specially good to specially bad to be found among the "Special Korean Cuisine" offerings. The most successful we tried were shrimp and fish pan-fried in a light egg batter, and chop chay, available as a main dish ($5.50) or a side dish ($2.50). Again, the contrast of raw shredded vegetables and cooked meat -- in this case crisply fried julienned beef -- blends, along with transparent noodles and the typical sweetened soy seasoning.
gSomewhere on the table will be a small dish of kimchee, fermented cabbage served cold but fiery with red papper. You can also order cold marinated vegetables, some highly peppered and others mildly seasoned, for 75 cents a dish. Nothing on the menu hints of these differences, for this is a menu that has hidden treats among the long lists of similar sounding dishes. Perhaps among the dozen soupy main dishes, too, there are some unexpected treats. But you are safe to begin with the bibim bab, the bul go gee and gal bi gui, perhaps the raw beef and certainly the chop chay. From there you can chance a vegetable dish with baby octopus or sea cucumber, a deep fried beef or chicken with sweet and sour cause. You can be satisfied with a $4.50 main dish or stretch into a whole evening of dinner and dancing from $6 appetizer of raw beef or po po tray or sashimi, through $8 main course plus side dishes. If the choices confuse you, you can splurge on $13 complete dinners with meat turnovers, soup, vegetables, sea weed, fried fish and shrimp, chop chay, rice and a main dish plus dessert. All of the main dishes are said to come with rice and tea, but our waitress was apparently unaware of that.