The Bounty of Dadami
By the time the foot-long boat of sashimi arrived on our table at Dadami, I had already counted 12 other dishes that preceded it: delicate, tempura-battered sardines meant to be eaten whole; grilled squid in a smoky, red gojuchang sauce on a sizzling comal; scallion pancakes cooked to a golden brown on both sides; an entire crab, served cool and cut into easy-to-eat pieces in that same tangy gojuchang; hiyayakko, cold tofu that looked like savory flan in its little dish; and dusty gray whelks that offered up a chewy, briny piece of meat once you pried it forcefully from the spiral shell. And now, here was an entire boat of raw fish.
My three friends and I regarded it with awe. When we'd ordered the $150 "deluxe sashimi" meal at Dadami, we knew to expect a lot of courses — our friendly Korean waitress had explained carefully to us that the meals are priced by number of people (a "small" is $79 and feeds two to three people, while a $300 "Dadami large" feeds ten to 12) — but we didn't expect this. The boat fairly glittered with broad, fat slices of raw salmon amidst a field of shimmering, barely pink flounder. The two ends of the boat were decorated with spirals of snowy radish and roses made of thin carrot strips. And in the middle were arranged three scoops of glistening seafood.
Shiny, gunmetal-gray discs of fresh, raw sea cucumber sat inside a pearlescent shell, flanked on either side by boisterously orange slices of sea squirt served inside its own fire-colored spiny shell. The shell of the sea squirt — or hoya — resembles a fruit so much that it's often also called "sea pineapple," although it tastes anything but sweet. Like the sea cucumber, sea squirt is prized less for flavor than it is for texture.
Texture is something we don't think much about in Western cuisine. We like things to be creamy, sure. We like our steaks to have a little give to them. Overall, however, we like our food to be simple and unchallenging when it comes to texture. We complain when things are chewy or glutinous or inappropriately viscous. But in Asian cuisines, texture is valued just as much as flavor.
The Korean-style sashimi we were enjoying that night at Dadami is called hwe, and it's a veritable festival of textures, allowing you to experience the gloriously subtle differences between the gentle give of squid and the tough, rubbery bites of sea squirt, the bouncy flesh of the creamy whelk and the almost jaw-breakingly chewy sea cucumber, which tastes like the brackish water off Galveston and floods your entire mouth with the taste of the sea.
"It tastes like drowning," said my friend Rafael from across the table as he chewed his way through one small piece. "In a good way," he finished, as a vague smile crept across his face.
The flounder in the sashimi boat gave way to another sensory experience — it reminded me of an afternoon last year I spent with fisherman Jim Naismith on his boat off Aransas Pass, when I got to try just-caught bonito. Naismith cleaned the tuna in the Japanese ike jime style, then carved its flesh like sashimi before spritzing it gently with fresh lime juice. I'll never forget the singularly crunchy texture of the bonito that day; it was unlike any raw fish I'd had in a Japanese restaurant.
But it's exactly how the flounder felt in my mouth at Dadami, and I crunched through each buttery yet firm piece with glee as memories of slicing through the water on a trawler came flooding back to me. Before long, we'd polished off the fish in the sashimi boat between the four of us, and we sat back in our chairs, stuffed and self-satisfied.
"That was a damn good meal," I remarked, pouring another small glass of soju and reflecting on the demanding, curious feel of that sea cucumber. Imagine everyone's surprise when the sashimi boat was removed and ten more courses hit the table.
I should have come to Dadami more well-prepared that night, perhaps with at least four more people. Dinners here are not for the easily fatigued or the unadventurous. By the end of our "deluxe sashimi" dinner, we'd enjoyed more than 30 courses of food.
After the sashimi came another huge boat full of fried fish and head-on shrimp; platters of creamed corn with peppers; Korean-style shrimp fried rice with a raw egg on top that cooked as you stirred it in; sweet-and-sour chicken; banchan-style buckwheat noodles, seaweed salad and kimchi; and even four giant, dark orange bowls of tart jjigae, a sour soup made from the bones of the flounder we'd just eaten a few courses prior. For dessert, there was fresh cantaloupe and adorably tiny Korean yogurt drinks ("Good for your digestion," our waitress said as she set them down, tiny straws poked into each one).
This is why I simultaneously love and fear Korean restaurants: the sheer quantity of food. In Western restaurants, lagniappe is considered just that: a little something extra, nice when you get it but never expected. In Korean restaurants, the concept of lagniappe is built into your meal: You will almost always receive an array of banchan, small dishes meant to be shared as appetizers among your tablemates, in addition to your meal — so come hungry and come with a bunch of people. It's the Korean way.
This style of Korean cuisine has more than a few passing similarities with Japanese food. In fact, Dadami bills itself as a Japanese restaurant (although it's absolutely not) in part because it's an easier concept to explain to Westerners who are unfamiliar with the concept of Korean raw fish preparations. Geography is one of the main reasons you'll find so much overlap in these two cuisines: The southern islands of Japan, like Kyushu and Honshu, are separated from South Korea only by the narrow, 120-mile-wide Korea Strait.
Most Korean restaurants, Dadami included, have two ingenious systems purpose-built for dining in large groups: call buttons that are used to summon your server so that he doesn't have to continually check in on you, and rooms divided by walls, curtains or screens that keep your loud, raucous, soju-soaked group separated and buffered from the other ones in the joint. On the night we were at Dadami, we were sandwiched between a table of hard-drinking Korean businessmen who pounded the table and howled with laughter, and a scurrying family with several young children. No one was bothered by anyone else; in fact, it just adds to the lively atmosphere.
And if you're dropping $150 on a 30-course meal at a restaurant, you're going to want to settle in and stay awhile. Having your own room and a server on call simply encourages you to do so with gusto. Of course, you don't have to spend that kind of money at Dadami to have a great meal. Dinner packages are one thing — and something to be tackled with a crowd of friends — but the restaurant offers equally good lunch specials for a lot less money.
Almost all the specials are $7.99 and include more traditional Korean dishes such as bulgogi as well as more hwe-style specialties like hwe dup bap, a sort of sashimi salad with rice. No matter which lunch special you order, however, you'll get at least three banchan if you're dining alone or six if you're eating with a friend — and always with some of Dadami's rustic, ruddy homemade kimchi.
In addition to finding tempura-battered squid served with sweet, thin tentsuyu sauce on the lunch menu, you'll also find that, in a nod to Japanese cuisine, your sashimi salads are served with soy sauce on the side and miso soup. Here, though, that miso soup has a spicy kick to it. And the soy sauce is generally less preferred to the deep red chogochujang — a garrulous blend of red pepper paste, sugar, vinegar and sesame seeds that you pour on top of your salad and then mix around until every last leaf of lettuce and grain of rice is coated with the stuff.
It's tough to want to destroy the sashimi salad this way, though, it's so beautifully presented. Three different kinds of tobiko are perched on top of fresh flounder, the spheres of roe shining gold, green and onyx. It was all I could do to stop myself from scooping them up individually with my spoon. But I finally gave in to the Korean way and made a mess of the bowl with its warm, sesame seed-studded rice beneath the cool, crisp fish and lettuce above. Like the dinner a few nights before, it was a triumph of textures, temperatures and flavors. But unlike our epic dinner, I finished every last bite.
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