A reader asked me recently why I don’t review many Korean restaurants, and at first I couldn’t answer. When I think of Korean food, it’s favorably; the flavors of the classic bulgogi are especially appealing. So why, when I did our quarterly schedule, did I have a tendency to not slip in a Korean restaurant or two?
And then it hit me: kimchi.
Hit me like a ton of garlic and fermented cabbage, like a condiment I’ve tasted a few times and never wanted to taste again. No, I wasn’t consciously avoiding Korean restaurants, but I’m pretty sure I was unconsciously avoiding kimchi.
But here’s the thing: I have a Korean-American friend who has more than her share of good sense, and she likes kimchi. Yes, she was raised on it, but she assured me it’s not an acquired taste, that there are countless versions of kimchi, some better than others, and that I’d obviously encountered a few bad ones.
I could see it. Too many experiences with bad preparations of escargot and calamari have put me off both of those dishes forever, so maybe it was time to slay the kimchi dragon.
So, after asking for a recommendation from my friend, off to Mother’s Korean Grill I went.
We started with Dol Sot Bibimbap ($15.95), which was a big hot stone bowl filled with beef, vegetables and a raw egg, with bottles of pepper sauce and sesame oil on the side. We have a particular affinity for sesame oil and so sprinkled generously, which brought a slight scolding from our server, who thought it might be too greasy. Greasy it wasn’t; we stirred the contents of the bowl until they were cooked by the hot stone and the aroma of sesame oil made us truly ravenous. We dug in, and fought over seconds, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
On to the barbecue. If you’re familiar with Korean barbecue you know that restaurants serving it have grills in the center of the table, on which the meat is placed. Usually you’re expected to handle the cooking chores yourself, but maybe because we were gabbing too much or maybe because she was just the extremely helpful type (we’re thinking they could have named Mother’s after her), our server handled it for us. Bulgogi ($25.95) was a natural choice, and it seemed to follow that Dak Bulgogi ($23.95), which is chicken, would be another good one. First the beef, which had been marinated in a mixture of sweetened soy sauce with garlic and other seasonings. As it cooked, I found myself feeling grateful that our party liked our beef medium rare, because we could dig in that much more quickly.
The chicken came next and was a parallel to the beef, although of course we had to cook it thoroughly.
We also were served a nice crispy salad of primarily romaine leaves, which we could have used to wrap the meats but didn’t.
And then there were the banchan, the side dishes-cum-condiments that accompany Korean barbecue; very often, aficionados will choose a Korean restaurant on the strength of the quality and variety of its banchan. Among the numerous dishes were bean sprouts and shredded radish, both of which added a nice amount of crunch to the soft meat, and squid tentacles and fish cakes (particularly flavorful fish cakes), for some hints of the sea.
And kimchi. I thought about demurring but decided I really needed to take one for the team, and there it was: a kimchi I actually liked. I liked that it was balanced, with the flavor of garlic pronounced but not so strong that it was bitter, and I liked that the cabbage hadn’t been fermented so much as to be swampy. The cabbage was in larger pieces than I’d encountered in the nasty kimchi, so maybe that had something to do with it.
Service, as I mentioned, was great, our server being extremely helpful. The decor was fairly simple but attractive, with accents like a stone fireplace wall.
I’ve heard some complaints that Mother’s is pricier than other local Korean restaurants, but when we ordered, the server told us the dishes would be enough for two, and our party of four was quite happy with the servings we had, so keep that in mind.
As for me, I’ll keep Mother’s in mind as the place that cured me of my fear of kimchi.
Las Vegas Review-Journal restaurant reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Email Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com, or call 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.