"This bowl is really hot," the food-runner said, with a conviction I'd never seen attached to the warning. I was sitting at the bar at Rohst, Lower Greenville's new Korean-ish restaurant, on a quiet Thursday evening. Rice hissed and popped from the spitting cauldron. My waiter's eyes said, "Touch this bowl and you may actually die," and I kind of believed him. I sipped on a beer and watched the steam dwindle while the crackling rice in my bibimbap, a traditional Korean rice dish, grew silent.
Rohst's bibimbap is served dolsot-style, in a very hot stone bowl — so hot that anything that touches it sizzles for minutes. Typically the heat, combined with a thin coat of oil, toasts the rice and cooks a raw egg as it mixes with the vegetables and bits of meat. But despite the intense heat, my rice was neither golden-brown nor crisp. The kitchen had forgotten to rub my bowl with oil, or maybe didn't use enough. They also fried the egg before sliding it on top of the other ingredients, robbing the dish of those crackly, crispy bits that only occur when the egg cooks in the bowl.
Looking around the dining room over my two visits, I could see why the kitchen might shy away from more traditional Korean cooking. There were more Bud Lights open at the bar than Kirins, and people were ordering safe. A waitress, either taking a break or eating after her shift, snacked on an avocado-topped grilled chicken club. A guy at the bar ordered the G.B.G. burger, a nod to the Greenville Bar and Grill, which burned down in the very spot that Rohst now stands. It's a touching sentiment, but not a bit Korean. Chicken teriyaki, soy-glazed salmon, a tuna burger and a seared tuna salad all recalled the glossy menus of a chain restaurant — less South Korean standby than Southlake Cheesecake Factory.
Seafood pancake $9
Pork taco $9
Hot stone bowl $13
Cross-cut short ribs $22
Braised rib stew $22
Pan Pacific halibut $26
Rohst, like neighbors Terilli's and Dodies, rose out of the ashes of a 2010 fire. The building's owner worked with architects to turn the disaster into a modern structure. They preserved as much of the original facade as possible but installed new steel to support an open mezzanine level and roof-top deck, and re-carved the building into three different restaurants. (Before the fire it housed Terilli's, Hurricane Grill, Mick's and Greenville Bar & Grill.)
Each restaurant interpreted an almost identical layout in its own way. Terilli's evolved into a cool, dark jazz den that features a mostly Italian-American menu loaded with red sauce and meatballs. Dodie's plastered the walls in LCD TVs and neon, leveraging a Cajun-themed menu to create a bayou sports bar. Each offers a toned-down interpretation of another culinary culture. Rohst tones it down even further.
Rohst's original owners, Michele and Steve Choi, are the former owners of Chosun, an authentic Korean restaurant on Royal Lane. They also own Dodie's in Rockwall. They teamed with Wonjong Ham, a technologist turned investor and restaurateur. (The Chois have since left Rohst.) Together they built out a restaurant in dark and masculine colors of beige and brown and black. They leaned on natural materials to temper the modern, stiff shell. A massive stone wall accents the main dining room. Rich, dark wood frames the booths and benches and wainscots the walls. It's a beautiful dining room, anchored by a large, rectangular bar, which is where I found myself pushing rice around a magma-hot bowl of bibimbap.
On another night I found myself on Rohst's simple but functional rooftop deck, where diners can sit at large round tables with friends and look out on Greenville Avenue and the bars across the street, on this night filled with baseball fans amped with a World Series-fueled energy.
It was dark. Small, naked, oil-driven candles on each table offered little light — a few losing their battle with the stiff evening breeze. I had to hold my menu up to capture the light from the stairwell. Another diner used her phone as a flashlight to examine her menu while ordering. Still, the space was comfortable. With better lighting and a heat source, you could get lost in your evening meals deep into fall.
Still: The kitchen would have to do its part.
Rohst doesn't claim authenticity. The menu clearly announces that the restaurant "serves a selection of Korean-infused American dishes." But that fusion gets garbled in translation on some dishes and completely lost on others.
Take the pork taco. The kitchen layers the most delicious pork bulgogi, spicy chunks of Korean barbecue, inside three pre-fab corn tortillas. The filling is sweet, and intensely flavorful, but it's topped with shredded cheddar cheese from the dairy aisle and served with a side of something akin to a remoulade sauce. The flavors aren't the least complementary. Why not ditch the cheese for something spicy and acidic? A topping of thinly shaved cucumbers pickled in rice vinegar would turn these tacos into a work of art. Daikon or carrot would work as well, making that mayonnaise-based side sauce moot.
An avocado pork roll is filled with tender pork and fried to a perfect crispness. But what's soft avocado doing in the deep fryer? A traditional roll of pork and cabbage has stood the test of time for a reason — the flavors and textures work.
The seafood pancakes are typical Korean fare and work well. Just be careful with that salty soy sauce-based condiment laced with aromatics. Use too much and you'll taste nothing but salt. Cross-cut short ribs present an interplay of fat and pork and bone. The ribs are fatty but moist and flavorful. I cleaned every bone.
The braised rib stew is boneless and packed generously with tender chunks of beef. The broth is thick and syrupy sweet, and the vegetables (carrot and potatoes) maintain their integrity despite an obviously long, slow, flavor-intensifying braise. It's a French beef stew spiked with the flavors of Korea, and I found myself hunting for every morsel of meat. But the potatoes soaked up too much of the sugary reduction; they tasted like dessert.
Actual dessert, by the way, should be skipped. The cheesecake sits on a thick, dense crust with way too much cinnamon, and the red velvet cake, clearly store-bought, bleeds bland red into its icing.
Despite all these issues, I can envision a Rohst that balances its Korean roots with its obvious quest to go broad. One that serves up the thoughtful, bold but approachable cuisine the kitchen is obviously capable of producing, that matches up to that stunner of a dining room the owners built. A menu of authentic but refined cooking featuring the intense, spicy flavors that make Korean food interesting.
Safe dishes don't have to come in the form of namesake burgers and boring chicken sandwiches. Those bulgolgi tacos are perfectly approachable, even for the most timid of palates. And bibimbap is a simple, straightforward dish that sings its own toasted, caramelized praise when it's executed properly. Sandwiched between sandwiches, and diluted with shortcuts, those dishes are lost.
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Rohst's kimchee is as fine an example of the fermented cabbage as I've ever eaten. But it sits on the side of the menu under "sides," buried under seasonal vegetables, garlic spinach and french fries.
It's obvious the kitchen is fighting about which direction they want to take things. After Michele and Steve Choi cut their ties earlier this month, Brad Wells, the general manager, also jumped ship, leaving Wonjon Ham to run Rohst himself.
And I get it: Restaurants in Korea Town have it easier. Rent is cheaper. There are actual Korean people living nearby, and diners who trek there do so expecting authenticity and the quirks that go with it.
But Rohst's menu has skewed too far toward Americanized mundane. In their attempt to design an approachable menu that appeals to everyone, they've produced a dining experience that, if you'll forgive the too-good-to-ignore wordplay, doesn't have nearly enough Seoul.