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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Explore Korean cuisine at Seoul Garden's do-it-yourself buffet

By James Moon

Enter any respectable Korean restaurant and as soon as you’ve ordered (if not as soon as you’re seated), servers bus to your table a core element of the traditional Korean meal—the little side dish accompaniments called banchan (pronounced “bahn chahn”). 

They’re kinda like tapas, but they’re included with your meal, and what non-Korean diners may not know is that you can ask for more—without charge. Requesting another dish of your favorite sesame oil-drizzled spinach salad is no stranger asking for a glass of water.

Free refills for side dishes may be a very Korean concept, but the self-serve, all-you-can-eat buffet is an American concept that has been adapted by some Korean restaurants in Annandale, such as Hee Been and Il Mee. Instead of the banchan coming to you on little plates to be shared among your tablemates, you choose and help yourself to your own banchan on your own plate. Talk about the dinnertime embodiment of east-versus-west cultural dichotomy.

Here in Annandale the new kid on the all-you-can-eat block (and seemingly a reincarnation of the short-lived Seoul Bok Doe Gi at the same location) is Seoul Garden at 7133 Columbia Pike, next to the Giant.

Considering how briefly its terribly reviewed predecessor lasted, Seoul Garden (under either new ownership or better management) is a welcome improvement.

Korean buffets have their pros and cons, and connoisseurs rarely glow over them in general, but Seoul Garden manages to serve above-average meat and provide a wide selection of banchan and other foods for (at the time of this writing) $25 per person for dinner or $14 for lunch. Don’t come unless you’re hungry.

As with the other Korean buffets in town, Seoul Garden is equipped with tabletop grills for the meat that you bring to your table. Diners do their own cooking but staff usually help out with scissors and tongs to make sure the meat is properly cut and cooked. (To avoid cross contamination, beef and pork shouldn’t be cooked on the same grill.)

When you’re settling the bill, uneaten meat is frowned upon, and some restaurants charge you extra for the waste, so don’t let your eyes outpace your stomach.

Besides just meat, the wide selection of other foods—many kinds of banchan, a variety of Korean and Japanese soups, Korean-style pancakesJapanese-style sushi, and a few American-style Chinese standbys—provide an opportunity to sample much more than your usual spread of banchan elsewhere. Non-meat eaters have plenty to choose from, too, but vegans may want to go elsewhere.

Next door to Seoul Garden, actually sharing the same entrance with the restaurant, is Karaoke eXpress, which has small rooms equipped with big screens and karaoke machines that go for around $30 an hour. Every time I’ve been to Seoul Garden, I’ve been dragged into one of these rooms “on the way out” after dinner. So don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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