Kabuki Korean Restaurant, 952 Troy-Schenectady Road (Peter Harris Plaza), Latham, 782-9609. Serving 11-9:30 Mon-Sat, 3-9:30 Sun. AE, D, MC, V.
Entrée price range: $11 (grilled pork dumplings) to $17 (stir-fried squid with pork loin)
Ambiance: strip-mall casual
I predict that the Capital Region has a few years to go before Korean cuisine finally burrows in to stay. We’ve gotten worthy eruptions of it here and there over the past few years, reminding me of the way Indian-Pakistani cuisine finally achieved a significant presence.
Taken at face value, the name Kabuki Korean makes no sense—but this restaurant started by offering both Japanese and Korean fare in Clifton Park before moving to Latham’s Peter Harris Plaza. A recent change in ownership eliminated the Japanese part of the menu. You’ll see a sushi bar there. It sports plastic representations of what formerly was served.
We visited on a recent weeknight and, among the handful of customers, made up the only fully-Occidental table. See paragraph one. The dining room is nicely, if sparingly, appointed, a colorful fishtank dominating each end of it. The tables are wood (laminate), the flatware is wrapped in a paper napkin. It’s a place that promises reasonable prices, and you’ll do well here for under 15 bucks.
The two-page menu presents 28 entrées with a brief description of each. No starters are listed, but you’ll be served banchan, a traditional array of side dishes. And if you polish them off before your dinners are served, as we did ours, you’ll be offered a fresh round.
We were served five different items. Kimchi is a staple, and ours was crunchy and appropriately aromatic without being very spicy, the lack of which my daughter and I lament even as it suits my wife just fine. Sliced mushrooms, spicy radish chunks, fishcake noodles (oden bokeum) and a squid-and-vegetables mixture made up the others, offering a satisfying contrast of flavors with varying degrees of crunch.
Entrées were delivered efficiently, and it was the first time our single server was joined by another, which gave us a much stronger sense of being appreciated there. I’m guessing it’s a family-run operation, so you may have the luck of the draw as to who’s on the floor at a given moment.
Suffice it to say that your order will be taken and food will arrive. It is unceremonious. Your experience will not be about ambiance or a social relationship with the restaurant, although I suspect that frequent visits may win you more animated attention.
A trio of hot pots (jeongol) is priced far out of proportion to the rest of the menu—they are $40 apiece, but jeongol traditionally is an elaborate, multi-ingredient preparation that results in enough to feed a family. The choices are mixed seafood (haemul), beef intestine (gopchang) and squid and vegetables (bul nak). These require an experienced hand at preparation, and my curiosity is piqued, so I may initiate a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money to try one.
Meanwhile, we feasted more than adequately on the separate items we ordered. Be assured that bulgogi, a popular beef dish, is available ($16), as are the noodle-and-meat mixture japchae ($15) and the poetic-sounding bibimbap ($13), which puts veggies and beef over rice.
We veered into other directions. Dolsot bibimbap ($14) has the added feature of a stone bowl that’s heated to the brink of perdition before serving, allowing you to cook the nearly raw egg cracked on top against the side of the bowl. The heat also serves to crisp the rice that anchors the other ingredients. While the arrival of sizzle platters under steaks and fajitas is nice showmanship, here, where there’s actually some cooking going on, the gesture makes more sense.
Like the noodle soups of Vietnamese and Japanese cuisines, duk mandu guk ($13) relies on a tasty broth for its overall satisfaction, punctuating it with additives that, in this case, included large pork dumplings and squiggly rice cakes, garnished with scallions. It’s light colored and light flavored but sneaks up on you as a good soup should. There’s a version for the same price that omits the rice cakes.
The basis of jae yook bokum ($16), a stir-fried pork dish, is heat. Specifically, a red bean and pepper paste called gochujang that gives it its fire, enhanced by onion slices and vegetables. “Not too spicy?” our server asked. Not at all. Of course, I enjoy fiery flavors, so I’ll advise you to approach this item with some caution. I found it restrained and was happy to add some hot chili-garlic sauce to it.
A dozen of the menu items are labeled spicy, in easy-to-spot red ink. Don’t be over-cautious. The cold buckwheat noodles with thin-sliced beef, for example, benefits from a little fire, although there’s a non-spicy version among the items as well.
Here’s a restaurant with much going against it, from its change of culinary focus and middling charm to the austere sense of welcome and fleeting service. But the food is a knockout. I look forward to the time when we once again can have full-fledged Korean restaurants in our area, complete with braziers—but Kabuki Korean may be the bridge that helps get us there.