Like feasting on the diverse array of dishes at a tapas joint, dining at a Korean restaurant can also provide a motley mishmash catering to palates just as varied, be they pedestrian, exploratory or anything in between. In fact, there's arguably no other cuisine that warrants enjoyment with a large group of people more than Seoul food.
Unfortunately, failing to remember to invite more than one guest to a Korean restaurant is a common oversight of mine ' an omission magnified when the septet of plates known as panchan is presented. The pre-meal snackables-cum-side items comprise the gamut of flavors ' salty and sweet; tangy and spicy; sour and bitter ' and gauging the reaction of fellow diners can liven up the affair, especially when the exotic plates arrive unordered and unannounced. Guests might wince after a bite of pickled radish; their lips may curl after a sampling of fish-pancake slivers; and tongues will burn after tearing into tangles of fiery kimchi. That's not to say such facial expressions and oral sensations are lost in smaller numbers; they're not, but at a Korean restaurant, 'the more, the merrierâ?� rings true.
At Maitland's Seoul Gardens, the real fun lies beyond the DIY grilling tables, which many diners seem never to move past. Take the reasonably priced won tang soup ($2.99) ' the broth is murky enough to scare off flies, but treading below the surface are hefty dumplings filled with superbly seasoned beef. My ordering the Frisbee-sized pajun ($12.99), a buttery pancake generously stuffed with pepper-blasted kimchi and scallions, elicited an appearance by owner Chong Men Yun, an animated man who, prior to Seoul Gardens, ran Korea House and Korea Garden in Longwood. The self-described 'kimchi king of Orlandoâ?� proudly proclaims he introduced the redolent condiment to the city, and given the pancake's savory makeup, I was in no position to argue. Kim bap ($4.50), seaweed rolls stuffed with beef, carrots, radish and egg, was a perfectly satisfactory, if somewhat ordinary, starter.
Forgoing bulgogi, the Korean national dish, turned out to be a wise decision, thanks to the sundubu jigae ($11.99). Blending clams, potatoes, vegetables and luxuriously soft tofu in a bubbling, nostril-flaring, blood-red fish broth, the soupy stew will certainly do its part to reduce any cold symptoms you might be suffering. My only complaint is that there was too much tofu in the dish, which caused a bit of soy disintegration. The soup is served with a bowl of sticky white rice, but if you're the sort that doesn't mind a little crunch in your grains, the bibimbap ($12.99) is as good a rice dish you'll ever have. It comes sizzling in a broad stone bowl brimming with beef bits, zucchini, bean sprouts, spinach, seaweed and cucumber, crowned with a fried egg. Our accommodating waiter was happy to liberally squeeze the blistering sauce known as kochujang into the mix before tossing and stirring the ingredients tableside. Just be sure to scoop up the bottom layer of rice to get a modest crunch with every bite.
The interior, with its orchids (available for sale), is tastefully appointed and, unlike the food, won't overload your senses ' though the dearth of patrons may have contributed to that impression. The need to bellow 'Yuh-gi-yo! [Over here!]â?� never arose ' a slight head movement was enough to draw the waiter's attention, as was the case when I humbly requested a second cup of complimentary sujungkwa, or cinnamon tea. The sole 'dessertâ?� offering ' refreshingly cool, sweet and comforting ' it ushered in a serene ending to the meal and, contrary to my sentiments in the opening paragraph, was best enjoyed alone.