By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
What is hip? Like a cube of lime Jell-O, hipness is hard to grasp without making a mess. Yet everybody craves this elusiveness, so much so they want to eat it, thinking it will impart some sort of penetrating insights. We all know where to get it, too: New York, L.A., Paris, London.
But what exactly is hip, and can it be imported? Loosely defined, hip is urban sophistication, an informed, aware, stylish posture. Yet as with that Jell-O cube, attempts to clutch it often result in a phony, trendy muddle without the "deep down, stoned to the bone" rhythm.
Why is it that so many restaurants strive to be hip à la New York or Berlin? And why would you want to do it in Plano? Naan, a new "hip lounge" and restaurant in the Shops at Legacy, drips with sleek earnestness, wrapping its stuff around traditional Korean cuisine in an attempt at evangelism to the McMansion minions. "I wanted it to be very urban, a little bit more sophisticated, a little bit more edgy," says owner Sasha Kim, who opened Naan with her mother, Sung Hui Kim, founder of Korea House in Dallas.
And it is striking. Look straight through the restaurant from the front door and the layout resembles a yin-yang symbol, one of the most popular tattoo graphics. The lounge (yin), the dark, wet side rich in mahogany and subdued lighting, is separated by a wavy wall from the dining room (yang), the bright, dry side with bamboo and sheer white curtains under burgundy draperies. What's hipper than that?
The music. Naan is flooded with that hyper-electronic, oversampled, vocal-filtered, hammering digital pulse crud that's found in all of the other haunts suckling at the teat of hip. It's the kind of music whose only purpose is to beat people into coitus. What makes some think this stuff aids digestion?
Thank God Naan is saved by the food. Kim says she essentially wanted to keep Naan's Korean fare as close to traditional preparations as possible, altering it just enough in appearance so that it would match the stylized surroundings, thereby enhancing its accessibility--in theory.
One of the implements in this quest is the wine, an element that is as earnestly highlighted as the décor. On both visits, servers rushed to point out which wines--high-acid whites like Gewurztraminer--I should have with my meal. These are swell recommendations to pair with fiercely assertive Asian food, and the Trimbach Gewurztraminer from Alsace, with medium yellow color and gobs of melon, spice and blossoms glued into a coherent bouquet with veins of crisp mineral, fit the bill. But so would any number of the lighter reds on the list, especially since, unlike much Korean cuisine, Naan's rendering isn't potently spicy or assertive. I successfully sipped the Gallo-Sonoma pinot noir, a red wine rich in berry flavors with a musky undercurrent. It may not have worked as well as beer, but pinot generally doesn't make you burp.
Not everything springs from Korean tradition, though. Steak tartare shows up on the menu, a dish Kim says she became infatuated with while in Europe. And this tartare is unusual. It looks like sheaves of coarsely shredded hash browns just before buttery frying welds them into starch cakes. In the center of the dish are symmetrical strips of beef, well-marbled and nutty from splashes of sesame oil cut with salt and flecks of scallion. Both above and below the beef mound rest bundles of bleached white Asian pear shreds embracing just hints of sweetness. These bundles were framed with three slices of cucumber and two slices of lemon. But the meat was so frozen that those shreds nearly crunched. It was like eating a sirloin slushy with fruit topping.
This is virtually the only European diversion. The rest is all Korean barbecue, noodle dishes, rice dishes and stews. "It's not a fusion thing," Kim insists. "It's not a twist on traditional. It's strictly traditional food."
Entrées are tethered to a slate of Korean vegetable creations including kimchi, fermented cabbage punched with garlic and peppers. The faded yellowish-green leaves pinpricked with intense red dots of pepper are beautiful. It's assembled in tightly bound rolls of head leaves, like spools of textured carpet. But the kimchi is subdued, skirting spicy punch and seismic pungency, the charm of the beast. It had been mainstreamed.
Yet along with the spinach and carrot, the daikon radish and cucumber salad contained a freak: anchovies. They looked like silvery wood shavings curled by heat: thin, wiry, ugly. Through intensive curing in a mixture of soy and sugar (and other things, no doubt) these threads were extracted into a resin-like consistency, like dried pickled pasta maybe. But in the mouth they unleashed a climate of conflict (no guts, no glory) among sweetness, smoke and brine. This is the kind of dropkick I expected from the kimchi.
Dol sot bi bim bap, a dish that when pronounced by the uninitiated (me) sounds like the percussion programming on the sound system, is a deep rice bed planted in a piping-hot stone bowl. The rice is covered with pinches of vegetables--carrots, bean sprouts and spinach--and topped with strips of rib eye steak crowned with fried seaweed and a raw egg. This near-perfect mesh of ingredients and flavors continues to cook as it's eaten, the rice forming a caramelized crust once the bowl bottom is plumbed.