Every once in a while a dining experience is of such a piece that the food is almost beside the point; you're just content to revel in reality gone slightly askew, maybe with a drink. You-Chun Korean Restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, but it does serve water. It's dispensed from a water cooler with two spigots: one hot, one cold. Cold water is drained from the cooler into 1-quart reusable plastic bottles with snap tops. The bottle is put on the table with handle-less white ceramic cups for pour-it-yourself rituals. Order tea and a bag is dropped into those same cups and the hot water spigot is opened.
That water cooler is up front, right under the large Samsung flat-screen television that is piped with surround sound shooting from speakers in the ceiling. Television reinforcements are in places out of big-screen gaze, so you can't escape the broadcast leer and jeer even if you wanted to. On one visit there was, as best as we could tell, a Korean dating game show. There was lots of laughter and applause, and every once in a while a fat exclamation point in loud purple would explode onto the screen. Captions were anchored with yellow smiley faces. On another show a man is stretching on the floor while a woman lays wet towels on his belly. Sometimes he grunts. She smiles.
Yet the strangest screen flicker appears to have come from Hollywood--with Korean subtitles. A plane crashes on a deserted tropical island. A pair of blondes sunbathes near the wreckage. Despite the twisted aluminum, smoke plumes and flickers of flame, nobody seems injured, except for the man who has a piece of fuselage sticking out of his chest. Everyone is concerned for his welfare, save for those sunbathing blondes. One of the most concerned is a petite Asian woman. "She is one of the biggest stars in Korea," says the You-Chun chef, sitting at a table in front of the screen in a starched white coat. A pair of reading glasses rests on his breast, tethered to a chain ringing his neck.
The You-Chun staff engages the diners, what few of them there are. "Do you know what kind of restaurant this is?" a server asks us as we enter, looking at us like we're a pair of pizza stalkers. He brings us menus only after he's convinced we're not disoriented or loaded. The paper place mats are covered with Korean script, but the menu has English subtitles. The bill of fare has only a dozen dishes under four headings: You-Chun arrowroot starch noodles; dumpling, traditional Korean pancake; meat dish; and special menu of the You-Chun.
Cold spicy noodle with sashimi is of the arrowroot pasta ilk. It arrives in a stainless steel bowl. The noodles are a military greenish brown, thin, and they form a bed at the heart of the large bowl. A thin but large half-moon slice of Asian pear is on top, as well as half of a hard-boiled egg, the yolk as yellow and perky as those smiley faces on the game show captions. A part of the bowl is dedicated to ray or skate--irregular pieces of flesh stained orange from seasoning. Cucumber slivers are scattered over the top. The server instructs us to stir it up. I pick up a pair of spoons and toss the thing like a summer salad.
"No," says the chef, rising from his chair, "like this." He takes my chopsticks and pokes and prods the mound, pushing the sticks deep into the bowl, upheaving the contents until the ingredients are well-dispersed and slathered with the spicy sauce. The cool pithy noodles have a hearty give that goes beyond al dente, yet they're not undercooked. Skate pieces are moist and tender, but chewy. Cucumber freshens the mix with its quenching crispness.
Fine hot noodle with chicken is in a large plastic bowl. A stack of smaller blue plastic bowls with Korean script on the edges is placed next to it. This stack of smaller bowls holds soupspoons, large metal ones with paper sheathes slipped over the spoon bowls to advertise sanitation, one presumes. Oddly, it feels like having dinner with a hotel toilet seat before the paper sanitation strip barricading the doughnut hole is ripped from its moorings. But that's me. Noodle strands are modest, separate and slightly gummy when struck by incisors. The broth is rich and smooth and rippled with irregularly shaped bits of chicken; some dark, most white. The chicken is juicy, though there are errant patches of parched flesh. It's filling and nurturing and could be prescribed during the flu season, if the myth of the mothering chicken remedy means a damn.
Prescribing here wouldn't be outlandish either. Walk through the doors. It's like entering a health club with a clean-room motif, or a clinic dolled up in high-tech chic. The dining room is sterile white, with thick glass panels bordering rows of tables. Some of the glass is frosted. There's a sign above a window up front, just beyond the jagged wall of glass bricks. "Bar," it says, with some Korean characters below it. Of course, it isn't a bar, as You-Chun doesn't mess with hooch. What is behind the glass window is a large commercial kettle of gleaming polished stainless steel. Hard to know what is cooked in it, but irony would reign high if it were a still.
Entrées are served with the usual array of Korean meal components. There's a tiny house salad served up in a little blue bowl, the same in which the soup is deployed. A tiny patch of iceberg lettuce leaves heaves under the weight of a thick, golden dressing whose ingredients are a tightly guarded secret, according to the server. But it tosses off ginger breath. Two kimchi (fermented vegetables) variations are delivered; both in a hot red bath. One is half-moons of a thick and crunchy turnip; the other the typical cabbage leaf. Both reek of that ripe pungent sting that makes this dish the soul food of the East.
And then this: a dish of pale yellow strands, twisted and bent, tangled into an oblong knot. It's like a mummified section of unraveling basket weaving. It's dotted with dark sesame seeds. "Dried squid," the server shoots after he's confronted with bewildered expressions. The strands are chewy and sweet. They don't crunch like the chilled stuff of the squid salad ilk, but they are good.
Only one entrant is slipped under "meat dish"--a beef rib "marinated in special sauce." It is an expanse of elegant simplicity. It sizzles. Onion shards, as white as bleached teeth save for a few charred, shriveled edges, carpet a searing metal plate slotted into a wooden platter. Aromatic steam curls and straightens as the raw slivers hiss. Two sections of rib--a thin band of meat hugging a strap of gristle buckled to yellow bone--rest high on the edge of the plate, as if to view the meat field before it. Dozens of dark meat strips--speckled with sesame seeds--blanket onion carpeting. Meat is impeccable: juicy, rich, loaded with flavor, easy to pinch with chopsticks.
Korean dumpling hot soup comes in a clean, slightly dark green broth that has a strain of pungency: not the rich fluid of the "fine hot noodle with chicken," but compelling nonetheless. Yellow strings of egg, coiled and hooked like hog tails, share space with seaweed strips. Dumplings, startling in their precise composition, are tender firm noodle pouches with just the right amount of give. The juicy minced-meat bulb inside shares space with vegetable fragments. If the dumpling has to share space with a Korean dating game show, well, so be it. There are worse ways to spend time with a fine dumpling, or any of the other fine You-Chun things. 2254 Royal Lane, No. 100, 972-243-1818.
Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. $-$$
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