I could tell you that I didn't know much about Korean cuisine until I visited KoBa, but even that would be an exaggeration. I had visited a Korean restaurant once before, years ago. I remembered ordering bulgogi and liking it; what bulgogi is, though, I still had no idea. I remembered being too chicken to try the kimchee.
My waiter at KoBa seemed to understand. He didn't scold me when I plucked a piece of kalbi (beef short ribs) from the grill at the center of the table and ate it without any accompaniment. (To my credit, I did use chopsticks for this maneuver, but considering the intricacies of chopstick etiquette and my general gracelessness, I probably screwed that up too.)
What I should do, my waiter politely informed me, is fold the kalbi with a hot red-bean paste called gochujang, rice, a few slivers of garlic and a sort of vegetable slaw inside a lettuce leaf. I followed these directions exactly. The result was terrific: crisp and tender, sweet and savory, spicy and cooling.
What makes kalbi so delicious, besides the inherent succulence of the short ribs, is its marinade, traditionally a blend of soy sauce and sesame oil with garlic, green onion and some form of sugar. It's a lovely balance of savory, salty, sweet and peppery blended together so well that I didn't really try to pick out the individual flavors.
My friend and I worked our way through a plate of lettuce leaves, and then another. We finished the order of kalbi and also an order of sam gyup sal, sinfully fatty slices of pork belly grilled with garlic and onion and dipped in a lighter, though still spicy, sauce.
We smiled. Our waiter smiled. As a treat the kitchen sent us scrambled eggs with green onions that the cooks had made for themselves. Following this were cups of sweet, cold cinnamon punch and fat oranges artfully quartered.
My friend and I departed, stuffed but happy. At home I read with horror that you ought not use the lettuce leaves as if they were tortillas. You should tear small pieces from the leaf and fill each with a little bit of the kalbi and its accompaniments.
Of course, our waiter had been too kind to point out this mistake. Clearly, though, I still had a lot to learn. All the more reason to return to KoBa as soon as possible.
KoBa opened at Chesterfield Towne Centre in November; its name is short for "Korean barbecue." The spacious, bright dining room is circular, and the tables around its perimeter have small gas grills. If you order barbecue by no means the only part of the menu, although, according to the waiter I asked, the most popular your waiter cooks your meal right in front of you.
This is not Japanese teppanyaki-style cooking (like Benihana or, more locally, the Kobe Steak House of Japan). There the cooking is a spectacle. The chefs toss food around and spear it in the air with their knives. At KoBa the barbecuing is methodical and except for the meat sizzling and (if, like me, you're a novice) an occasional word of instruction or explanation from your waiter quiet.
(The clearest comparison would be to Mongolian-style barbecue. According to Jennifer Brennan in the Penguin Companion to Food, however, this style of barbecue isn't often found in Korea, owing to the historical enmity between Korea and Mongolia.)
Besides barbecue, you can order from a lengthy list of soups, porridges and entrées. Pan-broiled squid is included with the appetizers but could serve four people without anyone having to hold back. The squid comes not in dainty calamari fritti rings but in very large chunks, some with the (now crisp) suckers plainly visible. These are served with sliced onions and peppers over a bed of buckwheat noodles, all of it tossed in a spicy red sauce. The squid was chewy not unpleasantly so, but I tired of eating it. The noodles were the standout here, on the thick side but al dente, with a mellow flavor to contrast the sauce's peppery heat.
Bibimbap is one of the classic Korean dishes: beef, vegetables and a fried egg on rice. I tried dolsot bibimbap, which is essentially the same thing but served in a heated stone bowl so that the egg cooks at the table while the rice at the bottom of the bowl gets a slightly crisp surface. Though the bowl stays warm throughout, this is better at the beginning than at the end; as the egg continues to cook, its flavor turns blunt.
The menu also offers Japanese entrées (many of which come with teriyaki sauce), as well as both Korean and Japanese appetizers. A word about the appetizers: These are generally not part of Korean cuisine. If you order one, it's likely to come to the table with the meal, as happened when I ordered goon man du, excellent fried dumplings.
You might not want to order an appetizer once you've seen the bounty of side dishes that come with every meal. Known as banchan, these are as vital to an authentic Korean meal as the pasta course is to an authentic Italian meal.
With the exception of miso soup, banchan are served cold, a majority of them fermented, pickled or dressed with a vinegar-based sauce. Of these, kimchee is the most well known even those with little or no knowledge of Korean cuisine probably know of this essential preparation of fermented cabbage, if only by reputation. It does have a strong smell (though not quite as sulfurous as I had been led to believe), but the flavor is wonderfully complex, with the heat of chile peppers and a teasing tartness.
Other banchan include a much milder form of kimchee made with sliced cucumber, glass noodles lightly dressed with a tart, lemony vinegar and bean sprouts tossed in sesame oil. There was spinach in spicy gochujang or a similar hot sauce and seaweed sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds. I enjoyed nearly all the different banchan, with two exceptions. The miso was unremarkable on my first visit and much too salty when I tried it again. A cold "potato salad" in appearance and texture like a scoop of whipped potatoes wasn't bad, but it did present me with a psychological block: I just couldn't get my mind around cold mashed potatoes.
Still, even the potatoes and the miso were a delight in the sense that I hadn't asked for or expected them. I think part of the reason I was so happy every time I left KoBa was that my meals there hadn't felt like negotiated contracts, with exactly that much food for exactly this much money. Instead, the banchan were like small gifts, their arrival at the table like the passing of dishes during a holiday feast with friends and family.
It's a wonderful change of pace from ordinary restaurant practice, and KoBa is a terrific introduction to a cuisine that is both appealingly familiar meat sizzling on a grill, after all, is an integral part of most cuisines and compellingly different. It is a bit of hike, if you don't live in the Chesterfield area, but it's a lot closer than Seoul.