Review: Dosi Takes a Lighthearted, Unpretentious Approach to Its Food

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The smoked Spanish mackerel at Dosi Restaurant + Soju Bar looks like pop art on a plate. Bite-size rectangles of luminescent filet as tender as one could wish for are each garnished with a strip of lardo so thin that it's translucent. Rolls made of equally thin strips of celery stand on end, adding cylinders to the study in shapes. Toasted red quinoa adds a fun, popping crunch and everything is pulled together by a veritable lily pad of deep green watercress and dill purée.

This is just one of the creations that make Dosi a restaurant worth visiting. It's a rather small place, with only about 60 seats, with a hardwood floor, and concrete block and paneled walls. As a result, the place can be loud. Fortunately, it was built for socializing, not seriousness.

A funky tree with bright blue-white lights stands by the front entrance, and color-changing bulbs that cycle through rainbow hues light the back bar counter. They make the place feel a bit like a club in Seoul.

A third of the dining area is taken up by a table that runs the entire length of the room, with chairs on each side. It's perfect for groups of friends to gather around, order -everything on the menu and then pass dishes gleefully back and forth like teenagers at a pizza shop.

Within the nebulous, fledgling arena of "nouveau Korean" cuisine, Dosi has found its footing with a lighthearted approach. Most of its dishes are small yet ideal for sharing. Actually, not just ideal -- they're the kind of food you want to share with friends, with exclamations of, "Here, you've got to try this!" Even the plates are clever, with built-in notches to hold chopsticks when they're not in use.

Dosi also avoids the mistake of trying to fancy-up traditional Korean dishes. Yes, they have a shrimp bibimbap, but they're not going to make a big show out of it and stir it up tableside. It's served in the traditional manner in a searing-hot bowl.

That's not to say that Dosi's approach to everything is traditional. Most of its dishes don't seem as if they are following any rules at all. Take, for example, the heirloom tomatoes and grilled tofu carefully placed on a bed of torn shiso leaves. Which playbook did this come from? There's no telling, but this beauty bursts with red and green color and the shiso leaves give contrast and fragrance to the crisp tomatoes that tingle on your tongue.

It's the same dish that betrays the fact that Dosi is struggling to find the hook for its audience. There was a menu change in between our visits. On the first visit, this dish was called simply "Tomatoes." On the second, it had been renamed "Grilled Tofu." The first name is much closer to the truth. It's all about the popping, bursting tomatoes, and the tofu is merely an accompaniment.

Dosi has a few other issues. One is having too many items on its smallish menu with similar flavor profiles. Over the course of our visits, we ordered three dishes that all had a rich, braised-meat-umami-starch kind of formula. The least successful of these was the black bean noodles (featuring oxtail), a dish with contrast and punch so markedly absent that it just fell on your tongue like a placid stroganoff.

The street dumplings were better but not compelling. The dumplings were little rice cakes strewn throughout a combination of pork belly, Brussels sprouts, prune and pear. The flavor combination might be a lot more cohesive and interesting if these were stuffed dumplings.

The third dish in the same vein is the lamb collar, but this one is the keeper. The sauce, made with dried persimmons, adds dark, exciting mystery to the depths of this dish. Persimmons have an incredibly short period of ripeness before they turn to the dark side, so using dried ones is a wonderful way to make the season last. The little rice cakes make another appearance, but in this case, they're quite welcome.

The do-it-yourself dishes might not have many fans. When the dish becomes a pain for the diner to put together, perhaps it's time to pull it back to the kitchen for plating. Such was the case with a serving of grilled pork belly accompanied by curls of scallion tops that had tied themselves into a big, unwieldy knot.

The kimchi selection really needs to be expanded and, as at nearby Nara, it's not gratis as it would be in a traditional Korean restaurant. The choices are cabbage (fresh), cabbage (fermented) and more cabbage (sweet and sour). What is there is very good; there simply needs to be more of a selection.

These objections aside, the delights here are numerous and frequent and might just make you giggle a bit. Kale chips polka-dotted with tapioca pearls are puffy and incredibly light. It's useless to resist dipping them in the accompanying cold, creamy yogurt sauce that sports a tantalizing boost of kimchi spices.

The thin scallion pancake with a crispy brown edge and layered on one end with fresh watercress, fresh anchovies and sesame (which are meant to be rolled up inside pre-cut strips of the pancake) could lead a diner to mentally recite "sharing is caring" lest she forget her manners and eat it all to the chagrin of her dining companions. The solution, of course, is to order two.

There are two desserts to choose from, but there may as well be only one: the goat milk ice. It's far better than the other option, a layer cake that is completely subverted by an overdose of sesame oil. In fact, the goat milk ice may be Dosi's masterpiece. One is never "too full" for this dessert. It is so incredibly light, cooling and refreshing that being full ceases to matter.

It's not sweet, yet it is most definitely dessert. There is a sprinkle of verdant matcha tea powder, a dash of salt and a swirl of silky vanilla yogurt. Over the top are quartered strawberries, bits of candied almond, pine nuts and dried fruit. Underneath are impossibly snowy white flakes of goat milk. Through some magic, the flakes don't melt right away in the bowl, instead politely waiting until they land on the tongue. In a single spoonful, the mild, milky ice is followed by the creaminess of the yogurt and then the tang of strawberry.

The drinks are as geared toward socializing as the food. Soju and fruit fill a display of glass jars. There are about ten varieties, and flights of four different shots can be ordered. Each comes beautifully garnished with fresh examples of what was used to infuse the soju. Grapefruit, orange, pineapple, red plum and pomegranate infusions were far superior to those with more sedate apples or blueberries. Soju and tart flavors seem to just go together.

For $25, you can order a 700-milliliter bottle of thick, cold, fruity soju blended at the bar with choices like lemon, lychee and mango. The huge serving is plenty for three people to share thoughout the meal. These tend to be on the sweet side, but the bartender is happy to dial that back. Squatty bowls (rather than glasses) are provided from which to sip the concoction. It's fun and a tad reminiscent of drinking from a coconut shell.

Service is knowledgeable and polite. The staff seems comfortable speaking about levels of dryness or sweetness in the sojus and sakes, and there is never any hesitation in describing the food.

Parents, take special note: Kids under seven are not allowed, and Dosi recommends no kids after 7 p.m. It is more of an adult -atmosphere, so that's an understandable guideline. Young, smart and urban Dosi is modern but not serious, and that's actually a good thing. Despite the lighthearted environment, Dosi seems to care very much about its food and what customers think of it. Really, though, who doesn't like a winning combination of good food, good drinks and good times with friends? Party on, Dosi.

Dosi Restaurant + Soju Bar 2802 South Shepherd, 713-521-3674. Hours: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Sundays.

Blended soju (700 ml) $25 Sampler shots of four infused sojus $12 Kimchi $3 Aged kimchi $3 Water kimchi $3 Grilled tofu $6 Kale tapioca chips $5 Scallion pancake $8 Smoked Spanish mackerel $12 Black bean noodles $12 Street dumplings $10 Lamb collar $12 Shrimp bibimbap $14 Pork belly $14 Goat milk ice $7

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