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.
Black cod, simmered in a garlic sauce that's billed as sweet and spicy but leans more savory, has barely decipherable spice and a ghostly layer of sweetness that lets the natural fish juices dominate. Topped with shreds of crisp fried scallion, the fish rests on thick slices of mushy, boiled daikon radish, adding a terrestrial muskiness to the fillet.
Tucked in back just off the "hip lounge" is a curvaceous sushi bar finished in black granite. It's sleek and beautiful, just like the stuff that comes from behind it. Sushi frequently encroaches upon Korean restaurants, perhaps on account of its similarity to kim-bap, that Korean bite of rice and other ingredients (beef and vegetables sans the raw fish) rolled in seaweed. Long sheets of bluefin tuna shroud the perfectly formed rice billet in deep purple-red. Vertical segments with seams cutting across the length of the meat were so loose that gravity pulled the segments apart. The tuna very nearly disintegrated as it hit the tongue. Horizontal segments marked the strips of yellowtail, which were as tender and rich as the bluefin tuna. Tobiko (orange flying fish roe) was perhaps the best example of the genre stumbled upon in recent memory. Resting on the plate, the pieces looked like wide eyes painted for burlesque. Bright orange ovals were punctured with little beady dots of black tobiko in the center while five sharp, thin cucumber fins fanned out from the corner. In the mouth they opened like a rich, pungent sea breeze, the kind that can burn nostrils with its salty mist.
Other Japanese installments didn't work as well. Miso soup was inconsistent: tepid on one visit, rich with frothy clouds of soy on another. Chicken teriyaki bento box had a compartment stuffed with dry chicken.
But this food doesn't need hip. What it needs--if it needs anything--is creative ambience and framing that bubble up organically, both from the food and from its Plano geography. Or perhaps a unique cultural introduction. I mean, what's hip in Seoul?
7161 Bishop Road, Plano, 972-943-9288. Open 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $$-$$$
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