Eating is a form of transport. Think about it. Close your eyes with a piece of cheeseburger from McDonald's dollar menu skidding on your tongue, and you're in one zone. Roll a piece of gopchang jeongol (spicy beef intestine casserole) against your inner cheek walls, and you're on a completely different planet; maybe in a different galaxy. No, dimension.
This is what Sura Korean Bistro is: a parallel taste-bud universe. It has the typical touchstones that keep you anchored in Wendy's reality. Note the salad bar. Then discover how bizarre it is for Sura to have this in the first place. It's a typical layout with lettuce, tomato, yellow cheese shreds and carrot. But it twists a little bit at the endpoint, where the bar gives way to soup. In a stainless steel pot simmers the miso. This is not typical miso. It floats sesame seeds with the slices of scallion. Stir it a bit and note the creamy white clapboards of tofu the size of cigarette packs, creating a piece of health irony that could only be crafted in a parallel universe. For contrast, a cold soup rests nearby: strips of pale green and yellow cabbage tumbling in a fermented cabbage broth in a neon hue.
But here's the real reason the salad bar is bizarre: It is utterly superfluous. After you've been sitting at your table for a while, sipping your Korean liquor or your bottle or glass of whiskey or hard liquor (pictured in the menu in a nice group shot), your table is suddenly inundated with a flock of small white saucers. These saucers hold things that would never seep into a salad bar. Many of them, the ones in the kimchi realm, flaunt those bright neon shades. Why is it that the only two foods that glow neon pinkish orange are tandoori chicken and kimchi? Three, if you consider Slurpees food.
Two types of kimchi make an appearance: cabbage leaves, drooping and listless, yet still with enough constitution to generate crunch, and large slices of sturdy radish root. Both sting--not enough to inflict pain, but enough to counteract any textural droop from long exposure to fermentation.
In another saucer are strips of dried anchovy that resemble twigs, except they smell different and are slightly sweet. They don't snap or crunch but instead are pliable and chewy. Another plate holds a thick sheet of fish. The flesh is creamy brown and also slightly sweet. The guess is that it's cod, though it's hard to know because the language barrier stopped probing dead in its tracks. Other saucers hold daikon radish slivers sown with strips of carrot and slices of jalapeno with a garlic clove in the center.
Sura's menu is like a photo album, plastic-coated and spiral-bound. Under "lunch dosirak" are photos of beef, shrimp and salmon lunch boxes: a bento impersonation. Under "Sura special broiled" is a shot of a plate with two strips of raw bacon, raw beef rib and raw beef strips fringed with bright green vegetable matter. Why they depict this broiled special before broiling is unclear.
Under "casserole" is a photo of a metal dish laden with whole lobster, slices of surimi, whole octopus, shellfish, tofu, shrimp and vegetables. Intrigued by the image, we opt for bulgogi nakji jeon gol, a stripped-down casserole with just marinated beef and octopus--or so we thought. The metal pan is placed on a burner, delivered to the table prior to the dish's arrival. The burner is ignited, and in seconds the casserole bubbles. The server removes a pair of scissors from a pocket with one hand and lifts the octopus high into the air with the other. He snips the tentacles into pieces, letting the limb fragments splash into fluid. The arms undulate as the spicy red broth roils. The casserole brims with fish cake, udon noodles, onions and sheets of thin, rumpled beef replete with fat and gristle. The beef is dry and tough; the octopus spongy and tasteless.
Here's an interesting thing: Entrées are saddled with rice blended with bean curd. The rice is served in a wooden box with metal trim; a crudely elaborate implement with a round wooden top bisected with a thick wooden shim that serves as a handle. The rice steams deep within the box and is stained purple from the bean curd--dark grains that resemble tiny insects trapped in a sticky white web of rice grains.
In other appearances, the octopus is not as dismal as it is in this casserole. Nakji bokoom, or sautéed small octopus with vegetables, has firmer, more flavorful appendages mingled with crisp scallions, carrots, bell peppers and zucchini, softened with puffs of clean and separate vermicelli.
Sura is a large clean room, one that would be antiseptic if it weren't for the earth tones throughout that straddle pale brown and light green. Tables have recessed burners installed in the middle, presumably for Korean barbecue dishes. Why these weren't fired up for casseroles, or any dish for that matter during our visits, is unclear. Perhaps an insurance issue intervened. Padded banquettes surround dark wood tables. Lit recessed alcoves coddle pieces of art. Menu photos depict private rooms, one of them called Sura Castle Hall.
Yet what lights the imagination at Sura is the slightly twisted simplicity of the cuisine. Gool bi gui, or broiled dried corbina fish, is a pair of whole fish, slightly breaded, slumbering on the plate as if relaxing after a hard day dodging shark teeth, and they live up to their wholeness nobly. Combing through the meat--which is moist and sweet--after peeling back the belly skin, you'll discover a bulbous creamy-gray organ glistening like a fat oyster. Was this gut left intact for the rich flavor it imparts?
This is why our server's reaction to our request for Korean steak tartare seemed strange. "You know what that is?" she asked. Hmm. Raw ground alpaca flanks?
This tartare is seriously red--deep and saturated. The tartare is not ground steak, but beef cut into thick strips, soaked in a spicy red sauce, fashioned into a ruddy mound. It's crowned with a raw egg, the yellow yolk making the hump look like a jaundiced bloodshot eyeball. Pieces of shredded garlic ring the glistening yellow. Surrounding the mound are dense stacks of thin pear and zucchini slivers, alternating in thick, stunted green and white stripes around the plate.
Perhaps the meat is sliced for chopstick utility. Yet what it lacks is the elegant, tender richness that makes steak tartare so sublime. It's tough and chewy, sown with strident sinewy stretches. The sauce makes a good stab at a recovery, throwing off gusts of heat and tang to frame and enliven the meat, but the effort falters.
Like many Korean restaurants in far West Dallas, Sura is studded with Japanese fare. There are sushi and sashimi plates and teriyaki in addition to the miso on the salad bar. Salmon teriyaki is not the typical fillet, grilled and brushed with unctuous sauce. This is a heap of bell peppers, zucchini, carrot and onions with a thick fillet buried within. Carrots are tough. The salmon is more of a hunk than a narrow fillet, and perhaps on account of its size, the cooking is uneven. It has dry, overcooked patches along with spots that are spongy and undercooked. Still other areas perfectly straddle these two extremes. Yet the dish is bland and watery. The teriyaki sauce is weak, almost imperceptible.
Sura veers sharply from typical Dallas dining paths so thoroughly beaten; a trajectory to another dining dimension, where fish are cooked whole in the literal sense at the same time quaint warnings are issued on the true nature of steak tartare. What could be more appetizing? 2240 Royal Lane, 214-243-5656. Open daily 10:30 a.m.-midnight. $$-$$$
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