In Korean, gogigui means, literally, roasting meat, and that's exactly what you do in Nara's new grill room, which opens to the public today, December 19.
Traditionally, diners prepare the Korean "barbecue" themselves at tables with built-in gas or charcoal grills in an informal setting. But at Nara, chef Donald Chang has sought to elevate Korean food with premium ingredients and a venue that is already being called one of the most beautiful in Houston.
Nara opened in mid-November, but this week marks the debut of the space designed specifically for Korean-style grilling. (I took a sneak peek at the space recently and was pleased.)
The three tables in the semi-private back room are conjoined, a communal dining experience ideal for groups of two to 12 people. In the center of each sleek, black table are 14-inch grills, which came from a restaurant-supply store in the Gangnam District of Seoul.
Traditionally, Korean barbecue is served with banchan, small side dishes such as kimchi, sesame eggplant and sautéed oyster mushrooms. The banchan at Nara are all unique, delicious and, of course, authentic. Chang's mother, Kyong Ja Chang, devised all of the recipes, and they're so secret that she won't even share them with her son. She and Chang's sister, Esther Cho, who is Nara's head kitchen chef, come to Nara daily to prepare the banchan and a few special sauces.
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The kimchi is particularly good -- spicy, fragrant, and not too watery. It's the ideal complement to the six different kinds of meat offered up for your grilling pleasure. The protein menu includes the classic rib eye (bulgogi), American Kobe short rib (galbi), brisket (ogyeopsal) and Kurobuta pork belly from Japan. That attention to the quality of the meat differentiates Nara from many other Korean restaurants; it's not that others don't want to produce good food, but few are as focused on high-end products as Chang is.
Once the meat is cooked to the desired temperature (rare to well-done -- you're in charge), it's traditionally wrapped in either a lettuce leaf, or at Nara, sesame leaves, which have more flavor than romaine or butter lettuce. Rice, sauce and some of the banchan can also be wrapped in the leaves, and it's all intended to be eaten in one big old (delicious) bite.
As Chang explains, there's really no wrong way to do Korean barbecue, and that's the beauty of it. It's a mix-and-match and prepare-yourself kind of meal, ideal for the communal setting. The room is also available for private parties.
If you've never tried Korean barbecue before -- or even if you have -- I can heartily recommend Nara. Yes, it's going to be a little pricier than the average outside-the-Loop Korean restaurant, but it's also going to come with better service and authentic food made by Chang and his family.