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Ann Arbor Observer: Unexpected Gift by Bigs Engels Posted 8/10/2009

BeWon Korean Cuisine is not new, but it's new to me. So nondescript is its setting in a strip mall alongside Busch's on Green Road that it feels like a real discovery. The room is pleasant, with comfortable tables, lots of light from big windows, and faint classical music in the background. That's pretty much it for the ambience, however. Like an unexpected gift in a plainly wrapped package, the best part is the food, whose consistent high quality and moderate prices make it a very good value. The menu is not easy to navigate--some of the dishes are identified only in English, while for others both the Korean and English names are given (all of the dishes are also written in Korean script). It mixes familiar Korean classics with more unusual dishes. The restaurant opened in 2001 and has been owned for the past three years by Geum Sub Jin and his wife, Yang Soon Jin. Both are from Korea, and Mrs. Jin went to culinary school there. They work side by side in the kitchen at BeWon, their first restaurant venture. You know right from the start that they have something delicious in store for you by the quality of the banchan--the complimentary shared side dishes that grace every Korean table. Brought by the server at the beginning of the meal, the banchan changed on each of three visits but generally numbered from five to seven. Always there was whole-cabbage kimchi, the complex and very spicy dish of fermented napa cabbage. I love this mouth scorcher, said to have antibacterial and antiviral properties. Other banchan included wedges of egg-vegetable pancakes; grated daikon radish; potato and carrot in a honey syrup; a luminescent tangle of crunchy seaweed; slices of sushi wrapped tamago-style in a thin omelet; and a moderately spicy shredded squash concoction. Mandu--stuffed dumpling appetizers--are available steamed or fried, and in meat or vegetarian versions, all skillfully made with the same very light wrapper. I tried prettymuch every permutation, and each had its strong points. In the end, I'd let the season decide: the spiced ground beef seasoned with chopped scallions and then fried seems right for winter, whereas the steamed vegetarian dumpling filled with tofu, spinach, bean spouts, and onion was geared to hot weather. As a main course, the delicious mandu guk soup is complex and filling and contains both chewy rice dumplings and meaty mandu, along with shredded beef and a whole egg poached in the clear broth. I ordered the "big fried calamari" appetizer on the strength of its name alone, wondering: would it be a big batch or a giant squid? It turned out to be both: large rings of squid--about the size of onion rings--breaded and deep-fried and served with a tangy, salty soy-based sauce. They were generally good, although several in the sizable portion were verging on rubbery. The vegetable korokke turned out to be three perfectly formed, hamburger-sized patties of mixed vegetable. Mainly potatoes, it was bland but nicely crunchy with a panko crust. Beef is a big player in Korean cuisine and appears in its three best-known dishes: bibimbap, bulgogi, and galbi. I recommend all three here. The most beefily satisfying was the excellent bulgogi, thinly sliced ribeye that is seared on a grill, shellacked with an "authentic Korean special sauce" carrying undertones of garlic and ginger, tossed with slivered onions and carrots, and served sizzling. (If you're feeling more adventurous, try the pork version, daeji bulgogi, which is coated with a gingery chili paste.) The galbi, sliced beef bone-in short ribs marinated in that special sauce, were slightly sweet and very tender. Both of these are big plates of beef, and with all-meat dishes like these you really see where the banchan come in handy--they're not just little starters but vegetable sides, too. Have a bite of galbi and follow it with a blast of crunchy kimchi cabbage or lighten it with a bite of cool daikon. BeWon's bebimbap can be ordered in the standard bowl or dolsot, a hot stoneware that makes the rice form a crisp brown undercrust. There's very little meat in the bebimbap; instead the focus is overwhelmingly on very fresh vegetables carefully arranged over the rice: julienne carrots, bean sprouts, spinach, and matchstick slices of zucchini, topped with a sunny-side-up egg. On the side is spicy gochujang sauce, with the consistency of thick ketchup and the firepower of chilies. I also tried the seafood version, haemul bebimbap, in which the beef is replaced with shrimp, squid, and mussels. It's a lighter, summery alternative. Two noodle dishes also lend themselves to hot weather: the japchae and bibim naeng myun. Japchae is composed around skinny, translucent noodles made from mung beans, sauteed with carrots, scallions, and onions. Small amounts of seared beef appear here too but more as a condiment than a main ingredient--and that, plus its light sweetish sauce, made it filling without being weighty. In my carryout order of bibim naeng myun, the noodles had clumped a bit by the time I got it home, but still it was a treat for the dog days. The main ingredient here is cold buckwheat noodles in a resoundingly hot chili sauce that contrasted with cooling elements like a hard-boiled egg and crisp slices of Korean pear. One of the few misses was steamed fish with sauteed vegetables. It just didn't have the punch and character I associate with Korean food--the fillets were limp, and the vegetables seemed like an afterthought. One of the biggest hits was dak bokum, a fine lunch of chicken breast stir-fried with a moderately spicy sauce. Rice comes with most entrees; BeWon mixes black and white rice, creating a purplish color. Service is prompt and friendly, although one well-meaning server kept steering us away from the more adventurous dishes toward ones more like "normal American food." BeWon has fried banana and a few flavors of ice cream for dessert, but I like to finish the meal with a cup of the house's ginger tea, brewed with apple and ginger root. Besides, the servers always bring a wedge of watermelon with the check. Even sweeter: dinner for two is usually around $30-$35, including tip. BeWon Korean Cuisine 3574 Plymouth Rd. 332-1004 Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m-9 p.m., Sat. noon-9 p.m. Closed Sun. Dinner appetizers $3.50-$8.95, entrees $9.95-$14.95, desserts $1.50-$3.95. Lunch appetizers $3.50-$8.95, entrees $7.95-$9.95, desserts $1.50-$3.95. Fully disabled accessible. [Originally published in August, 2009.]

by Bigs Engels

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