Oh, the food is still good, but it’s clear that the Queen would like to reign over more than a bulgogi and buckwheat-noodle palace. In fact, we found no buckwheat noodles, ice-cold or otherwise, on the menu. What we did find, in addition to several Japanese specialties, was a section titled “Chef Young’s Ultimate Menu for the Discerning Palate” with prices ranging from $18.95 for sweet-and-sour fish to $34.95 for the Ilsong filet mignon “marinated in Chef Young’s famous sauce and broiled over an open flame. Exquisite!!” It will take some time, we suspect, to convince the serf sorts to pay $35 for an entrée, no matter how exquisite it may be, in the context of an Asian restaurant. All those years of cheap Chinese food have simply ruined us.
Paradoxically, we are used to paying big bucks for small servings of sushi. That menu is extensive at Ilsong, and we tested it at both ends of the spectrum — a modest kampyo maki with a center of sweet squash ($3.50) and a more elegant eel combo roll ($10.95). The makimono was satisfying in a peasanty sort of way; you did have to strain to taste the squash — especially after dipping the nori-wrapped cylinder in the usual soy with wasabi. The imperial eel roll was another matter; the California center with avocado, surimi, and cucumber rolled in rice came robed in savory-smoky eel and napped with a sweet but sultry sauce. It was opulent and, yes, exquisite.
The appetizer section, which includes both Korean and Japanese items, next tantalized with the likes of Dragon Balls (the mind boggles) of lightly spiced tuna and Tiger Eye, a concoction of fried, seaweed-wrapped squid, but we balked at the $11.95 price tag. Peppered calamari, battered squid “tossed with fresh green and red chili pepper, salted,” seemed a reasonable compromise at $8.95, but the more telling compromise was in the pepper, the chili, and the salt: there seemed to be none. We had been expecting a more challenging version of the now knee-jerk fried calamari with marinara sauce, but found only a few pieces of diced red bell pepper in a bed of shredded lettuce. A bowl of soy-inflected broth was presented, but it did little to enhance the squid — admittedly tender and properly fried.
Upon ordering the Soybean Paste Soup, called “a spicy blend…,” we were confronted by the waitress with a challenging “Have you ever tried that before, sir?” query. (Service, by the way, is knowledgeable but somewhat disorganized.) So naturally we expected this one to be blazing, but there’s both more to it than meets the eye — and less. Stocked with shell-on shrimp, tiny scallops, a clam, and slabs of tofu, not to mention vegetables aplenty, the rich broth was perfectly pleasant, even exceptional, but spicy only in the latent, creeps-up-on-you sense. Hardly a barn-burner, especially with the creamy tofu mitigating any untoward heat.
The two chenin blancs we had brought to taste for an upcoming Value Vino article finally got a workout with an entrée straight from our old favorites list at Go Hyang Jib, the spicy stir-fry octopus served “on a sizzling platter.” The sizzle was subdued, but the octopod was plentiful, just al-dente enough and handsomely enhanced by its entourage of carrot, zucchini, and the like. And it was truly spicy. At last. We loved it, and so did both the relatively restrained ’05 Dry Creek Dry Chenin Blanc and the more exuberantly floral Pacific Rim 2004 chenin from Bonny Doon, for whom exuberance is a mantra.We couldn’t leave, of course, without trying at least one selection from the Ultimate Menu, and Chef Young’s Choice Bulgogi got the nod; we had to find out if it was worth paying $19.95 for “prime rib-eye seared over an open flame.” (The standard version is not substantially lower at $16.95, but there’s a lunch special at $7.95.) Despite some beautiful accompanying vegetables, including asparagus, the short answer is no. Though the meat is exquisitely tender and generously portioned, any perceived taste benefit is overshadowed by the powerful, plentiful sauce, and we left feeling that the less-regal dishes still ruled — and that includes the common but copious pan chan brought to the table in advance of Korean entrées: Slices of fish cake, dried squid with a syrupy glaze, pickled daikon and lusty kimchee … bring ’em on, then bring ’em on again. I’d rather eat pan chan than cake any day.