Korean Adventure

My first visit to Camellia Korean Restaurant went so well that on my second, I felt brave enough to order pan-fried octopus and noodles without even breaking a sweat. The sweating came soon enough: triggered by the boisterous red pepper that tinted the noodles sunset-red, exacerbated by the alien sight of octopus tentacles curling forth with the suckers still attached.

No need to worry. The heat was stimulating, not lethal. The baby octopi proved harmless enough, chewy in the way that Asians prize and that I am gradually coming to appreciate, if not exactly to like. And the spaghetti-style noodles that sheltered them constituted a surprise party of sorts -- galvanized with dried red chile and green jalapeno wheels, soothed with glassy tree ears and mild onion, forested with spinach leaves and scallion. It's always gratifying when one of those dishes you order the way climbers tackle Everest -- because it's there -- turns out to be delicious.

Camellia's menu has its share of such double-dare-you challenges, things like "spicy loach soup" and "pan-fried cod head with soybean sprouts and hot ground pepper." But this semi-secretive spot in westernmost Spring Branch boasts plenty of entry-level Korean favorites that your basic Texan could love -- from appetizer pancakes sizzling on cast-iron fajita platters (no kidding), to marinated meats you grill right at your table, to the myriad complimentary relishes and salads that are the Korean analog to salsas. The east side's Woo Mi Gwan may be homier; Sharpstown's Sam Bo Jung more frenetic and festive. But with its warm wooden surroundings, moderate light levels and skillful kitchen, Camellia is the kind of solid, confidence-inspiring place that invites you to expand your Korean repertoire a little.

This is where I finally tried one of the imposing broiled fish I had witnessed Korean diners dismantling so happily. Now I could see why they looked pleased: the gorgeous, whole red snapper was a model of clean, strong flavors and textures. Its salty, crisp-chewy skin and sweet, mild flesh made for a provocative contrast, and an extravagant shower of scallion, sesame seeds and red pepper upped the ante. Bites of soft, sticky rice threw the flavors into an intricate balance; for once, I found myself admiring rice as more than a bland backdrop to the various Asian cuisines.

Just as intricate was a clay pot bubbling with silky, almost custardy curds of tofu in an exhilarating red-peppered broth. Red jalapeno discs and bean-sprout batons bobbed in this volcanic stew, along with chunks of oyster that lent a subtle taste of the sea. As it cooled, it mellowed, and the garlic that is so integral to Korean cooking seemed to blossom.

It's fun to start a Korean meal with one of the rice-flour pancakes that are cut up and served like some extraterrestrial pizza, with the toppings on the inside. Camellia offers an unusual variety of these griddlecakes, including a very racy version incorporating kim chee, the famous (and famously hot) Korean brined-cabbage relish. It's an eventful dish: tinted red-chile orange, alive with currents of garlic and red pepper, bristling with bean sprouts and scallion and hot-salty cabbage shards. The play of crusty underside and soft, faintly glutinous interior makes it even more interesting. The very idea of a pancake this savory, this spicy, challenges our Western notions -- and then conquers them.

Camellia's answer to European potato pancakes provides subtler thrills, its delicate tendrils of grated potato interspersed with scallion and (according to the menu) squash. Nobody at my table could discern any squash, and our efforts to question our animated waitress ended in a language impasse. Nobody cared. We were too busy chopsticking up the last few pieces, which grew crustier as they sat on their sizzling cast iron, and dipping them into a spicy soy bath.

The barbecued meats are the easiest things for Korean-cuisine neophytes to relate to, and they're quite good here -- particularly the meaty pork bulgogi in its sweetish marinade. This dish (listed as dwe-ji bulgogi on the lengthy barbecue roster) is grilled back in the kitchen rather than on your tabletop, lest the dining room fill with fat-fueled smoke; the cooks give the slices of boneless rib meat a satisfyingly crisp, chewy exterior.

Cooking your own slices of Korean-style beef short ribs (the third galbi on the list) or wafery beef rib eye (bulgogi) spins the meal into a lengthier and more festive occasion. The trick is learning the vagaries of your sunken tabletop grill and figuring out exactly how long to cook the meat for optimum effect; those last few pieces should be just about perfect. During this communal exercise, I realized once again that Korean rib meats have far more character and substance than the thin sheets of rib eye bulgogi. In the future, I plan to go straight for the ribs, with no detours -- at least until I get up enough nerve to try the sizzling beef tongue, or the chitterlings, tripe and beef heart cooked over the open grill. Maybe about 1999.

As always, the dozen small side dishes to mix and match with the barbecued meats lend a sense of occasion. Camellia's best of show: knockout fresh spinach seasoned with sesame and garlic; cool, low-keyed bean sprouts with sesame and scallion; thick slices of mild, minimally marinated cucumber with a discreet red-pepper kick; and nicely spongy slabs of fried tofu that taste almost winy in their sweet, salty and red-peppery marinade.

I loved the simplicity and freshness of long, lightly brined turnip strips, a winter dish that resembles a sort of flexible jicama. My Korean friend wrinkled her nose at the tingly, fermented quality of the red-hot cabbage kim chee and ungainly radish chunks ("too old," she decreed); I rather liked the effect. I even enjoyed experimenting with a little dish of salty, fermented yellow bean paste: mixed with a bit of rice, it had its own peculiar appeal. So did two acquired Korean tastes -- sweet, slightly musty-tasting beans that register as a sort of candy and crisp, gossamer strips of sweetened anchovy that are an entertaining novelty.

I found myself similarly entertained by the serious chewiness of the dense, smooth rice cakes that populated a big bowl of dumpling soup; others at my table were not amused. But the sturdy dumplings, stuffed with meat, vegetables and vermicelli, were a hit. And a seafood-and-scallion version of the musically named Korean rice dish, bibim bap, managed to convey a comforting quality even in the presence of hot pepper, octopus and squid; its gingery, mix-in sauce was especially appealing. At meal's end, a glass of milky rice gruel materializes in front of you. It looks weird, but sip it anyway: it's sweet and soothing and exotic, a distant relative of the Latin-American beverage horchata. At the bottom of the glass lies a thick rice-grain sediment; leave it undisturbed, unless you like (as one of my companions carped) soggy rice crispies.

Before you set out for Camellia, know that you'll have a better time with a group of four, five or six; the expansive, participatory nature of the Korean restaurant experience and Camellia's big, comfortable booths are liable to make twosomes feel lonely and deprived. Thanks to its ornate screens and woodwork, Camellia has an established, mainstream feel that will reassure beginners; there's even a tiny indoor garden near the front door, although the turtle who once roamed there has defected to parts unknown. To find the place, drive a block or two north on Gessner from I-10, and look for the Camellia sign halfway down a strip center that is perpendicular to the street. Bring your sense of adventure; an enthusiasm for garlic and red pepper helps, too.

Camellia Korean Restaurant, 1055 Gessner, 827-8032.

kim chee pancake, $5.95;
pork bulgogi, $8.95;
pan-fried small octopus with noodles, $14.95.

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